WATERLOO, ON - A team of scientists at Canada's leading research centre – the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics – published a paper this week detailing their findings that the Universe is 47 metres to the left of where they previously suspected it to be.
"It's hard to describe the importance of a finding like this," said Pontus Åkesson, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, who spends several months of the year filling his Distinguished Visiting Research Chair post at the Perimeter Institute. "For the longest time, we believed the Universe to exist with a specific set of spatial co-ordinates, down to 36 decimal places. And as we have seen, we were not even close."
What Professor Åkesson refers to as "not even close" is an incredibly humble description of the 46.786678 metre discrepancy, considering the Universe's staggering scale. Still, with the precision of modern astrophysics, a miscalculation of this sort could spell disastrous consequences such as giant meteor collisions, spacecraft inadvertently being launched into the sun, or the Earth being swallowed by a black hole that was closer than previously supposed.
The astrophysics community has already begun the process to honour the lead researcher, condensed matter theorist Konstantin Skorobogatov, with an ISO proposal to christen the 46.786678 metre distance which the Universe was discovered to be to the left of, a Bog (this being the name by which friendly colleagues address Professor Skorobogatov when passing in the hallway or sharing a table in the cafeteria).
In fact, it was in the Perimeter Institute's Black Hole Bistro – a modern, sunlit cafeteria on the building's main floor – that the notion of the Universe's location first came into question in the mind of the brilliant Professor Skorobogatov.
The story, translated by a post-doc student – for nearly a decade Skorobogatov has dispensed with natural language in favour of mathematical symbols – is that Skorobogatov set his lunch tray down upon a table and went to retrieve a spoon. Upon returning to his place – the same place at which he sits every day and which is unofficially reserved for the 67-year-old Russian physicist – Skorobogatov noticed the sunlight hitting the table in an unusual manner which could neither be predicted nor explained by solar cycle progression. He looked up and realized the cause for this was that the entire table had been displaced by the cleaning staff the night before, and not returned to its usual location. Skorobogatov proceeded to eat his lunch in a detached manner, composing incredibly complicated mathematical statements with the letters in his Primordial Soup (a kitschy variation on Alphabet Soup served by the Black Hole Bistro, featuring characters such as π, ρ, ∞, and φ instead of the familiar ABCs).
At some point during that fateful lunch, "Bog" departed from the table silently with a string of enriched pasta characters left behind in pure mathematical language which translated roughly as "we have a problem." Nine days later he emerged from his office looking exhausted and haggard, but claiming to have made some headway toward a solution. Assembling a small team, they devoted the next three months to formulating a theory based on their findings, which would have been impossible without data collected from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the Chilean Andes, in an unrelated experiment concerning the symmetry of empty space. The researchers on this project could not have known their data would contribute to perhaps the most significant scientific finding since Newton's discovery of Gravity.
"I think it's incredible. Just amazing," said a flustered Lawrence Filibender, a 2nd-year Physics and Astronomy major at the University of Waterloo. "This changes everything. Think about it! Every experiment ever done by anyone – their measurements need to be corrected now that we know the Universe is 1 bog to the left of where we thought it was." Filibender proceeded to vomit on the Perimeter Institute's atrium floor and then politely excuse himself.
However, not everyone is equally enthusiastic. "All I want is some credit, man," said Keith Harris, chief custodian whose team was responsible for cleaning the facility the night before Skorobogatov's discovery and who was more currently responsible for cleaning up the overly-enthusiastic Mr. Filibender's thrown-up breakfast. "It's enough that I moved the guy's table the night before he came up with this brilliant theory," continued Harris, pausing with mop in hand, "but forget about that – I've been saying the same thing as him for at least two years." Harris joined the Perimeter Institute custodial staff in 2002 and was attracted because of his hobby fascination with cosmology. "I read that Carl Sagan [sic.] book about time – what's it called… ah, you know the one. Anyway I read that thing and one morning I'm taking some aluminum out of the microwave and it just occurs to me: how do we know we are where they say we are? I mean, think about this: what if it's actually yesterday? All I'm saying to that Skorobov [sic.] character is one thing: give credit where it's due, man. Give credit where it's due."