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In the Afterglow Of the Big Bang

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Science  01 Jan 2010:
Vol. 327, Issue 5961, pp. 26-29
DOI: 10.1126/science.327.5961.26

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In the late 1960s, Russian astrophysicist Rashid Sunyaev, currently the director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, and his legendary mentor—Yakov Zel'dovich, one of the fathers of the Soviet hydrogen bomb—predicted a phenomenon that causes massive clusters of galaxies to make an imprint upon the cosmic microwave background. But the impact of the so-called Sunyaev-Zel'dovich (SZ) effect is only now being fully realized. In the past decade, the effect has enabled cosmologists to measure astronomical distances precisely and determine the expansion rate of the universe, independent of other techniques such as the observation of Type 1A supernovae. And in the past 2 years, thanks to advances in detection technology, astronomers have begun using the phenomenon to discover distant clusters of galaxies. In 2008, when a team of U.S. astrophysicists reported the first galaxy clusters discovered using the SZ effect, the result represented the bridging of two divides: between theory and application, and between two scientific cultures that until 2 decades ago had been isolated from each other by secrecy and mutual distrust.