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Big Bang at South Pole Williamsville grad helps to focus on birth of universe

The North Pole seems to get all the attention this time of year, with all the tales of you-know-who and his crew braving the bitter cold to defy the laws of physics to zip around the globe on a single night.

But taking a look 12,500 miles from there, at the Other Pole, would reveal another bearded guy with a goofy sense of humor in a bright red coat, toiling with his colleagues to conquer physics in another way.

That would be Evan Bierman, Williamsville North High School Class of '96, working at the South Pole, trying to get a glimpse of the beginning of the universe.

As part of his work on a doctorate at the University of California at San Diego, Bierman helped build a telescope that operates on microwaves. Work on the $2.2 million telescope, funded through an National Science Foundation grant and private donations, started in 2001.

Last year, Bierman and some of his colleagues spent two months at the South Pole to set up the Background Imager of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization. The one-of-a-kind telescope is looking at the radiation left over from the explosion that scientists believe gave birth to the universe 13.5 billion years ago.

"We're looking at the very beginning of the universe, the Big Bang," he said in a phone interview from the South Pole. "The leftover radiation from the Big Bang travels through the universe. The light we get from the early universe comes to us virtually untouched. We're looking for a pattern that's been imprinted on this radiation to tell us how the Big Bang exploded."

Scientists discovered this radiation, called cosmic microwave background radiation, about 50 years ago. For many years, they believed this radiation had a uniform temperature throughout the universe -- 3 degrees Kelvin, or about minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 1990, a satellite detected deviations from that temperature. Bierman and his fellow researchers hope to study those deviations to help them figure out what happened just after the Big Bang.

"It's the same thing as if you were looking at a light and someone cast a shadow, and you were looking at the light and trying to determine what caused the shadow," he said. "Our project is unique. A couple of other telescopes have looked for this 'shadow,' but didn't have enough power to tell us anything. We have a telescope specifically designed for this purpose."

Bierman and his colleagues set up their telescope at the South Pole in large part because the region is so dry. Water absorbs microwaves, so a very dry area is an ideal location for their work. Keep the telescope aimed properly from that location also is easier.

Bierman, 28, returned to the South Pole this fall for a two-month stint to do maintenance and upgrades on the telescope, whose receiver, including detectors and lenses, weighs about 800 pounds. The mount, which points the telescope, stands about 20 feet high and weighs a couple of tons.

He recently talked to an astronomy class at Williamsville North, via a conference call from the bottom of the globe, to field questions from aspiring scientists. Most of the students' inquiries involved high-end technical questions about his research and equipment. But the session also had time for the more mundane.

"When I was in high school and walking around, I always used to complain about how cold it was," Bierman told the students. "It's always worse somewhere else -- remember that."

Temperatures at the South Pole hover around minus 30, with a windchill of minus 60, but the lack of humidity and the altitude -- about 10,000 feet -- sometimes, on less windy days, allow team members to go outside in just a standard winter coat. Bierman says he even has been out in his shirt-sleeves for short stints.

The South Pole actually ranks third on his list of "the worst weather spots" -- the weather is always dry and cold, he says, so you always know what to expect. And the novelty of being at the pole helps make it bearable.

The worst place he ever has been, weather-wise? Boston.

"Nasty winters, nasty summers, no underground tunnels, no culture that embraces the cold," Bierman wrote in a blog.

Buffalo, of course, made his short list, ranking second.

"A close second, but it has milder summers, and Niagara Falls. Plus, a president got shot there. How bad could it get?"

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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