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Education

Tampa education inspired head of Big Bang team

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2014 at 11:22 PM

TAMPA — Decades ago, he was handed a telescope by a science teacher who saw a lot of promise in her student at Corpus Christi Catholic School in Temple Terrace.

This week, John Kovac is the toast of the astrophysics world, the man who led a team that discovered space ripples providing evidence of cosmic inflation – the “smoking gun” validating the Big Bang theory.

Kovac credits his father, Mike Kovac, former dean of the University of South Florida’s College of Engineering, and his teachers at Corpus Christi and Jesuit High School of Tampa, with turning him into the scientist he is today. They “were really formative for me,” Kovac said Wednesday. “They gave me a great education in science.”

Neither his father nor Lottie Peterson, the Corpus Christi science teacher who gave the Kovac family the telescope, lived long enough to witness the discovery. But those in the field are calling it one of the greatest breakthroughs in astrophysics during the last 25 years.

Marc Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University who did not participate in the research, told The Associated Press the finding is “not just a home run. It’s a grand slam.”

A video is circulating showing a colleague breaking the news of the discovery at the doorstep of Andrei Linde, a Stanford University theorist and one of the authors of inflationary cosmology. A stunned Linde makes him repeat the information three times, his wife hugs the messenger, and the three are soon drinking champagne.

In a Harvard University release, Kovac said detecting the signal “is one of the most important goals in cosmology today.”

Kovac’s family moved to the Tampa area when he was 7. After attending Corpus Christi and graduating from Jesuit in 1988, he earned a bachelor’s degree at Princeton University and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. He was a fellow at the California Institute of Technology and is now with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Kovac and his team have been examining the faint glow of the Big Bang of 14 billion years ago from a radio telescope at the South Pole, where the air is cold, dry and stable.

Cosmic inflation theory suggested that the universe burst into existence in an extraordinary event that initiated the Big Bang. In less than a trillionth of a second, the universe expanded exponentially.

Kovac and his team found a specific pattern in light waves that they concluded were caused by gravitational waves, which are ripples in space and time. They called it the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation.

In the Harvard statement, Avi Loeb, a theorist from the university, said, “This work offers new insights into some of our most basic questions: Why do we exist? How did the universe begin? These results are not only a smoking gun for inflation, they also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was.”

The findings were announced at a press conference in Cambridge, Mass., with collaborators from the Harvard-Smithsonian center, the University of Minnesota, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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