Edward W. Kolb

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Biography written in 1996
Edward W. Kolb received a B.S. degree in physics from the University of New Orleans in 1973 and a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas in 1978. He has done research in particle physics and astrophysics at the California Institute of Technology, the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the Los Alamos National Laboratory where he was a J. Robert Oppenheimer Research Fellow. He served for ten years as the founding head of the NASA/Fermilab Astrophysics Group at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois and is a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

The major area of Kolb's research is the study of the early universe in the first seconds after the 'Big Bang,' when the extreme conditions of temperature and energy are similar to those produced in the high-energy collisions of particles at accelerators.

Among his many education activities, Kolb regularly lectures to high school students in Fermilab's Saturday Morning Physics Program. He also gives popular accounts of the Big Bang as a Harlow Shapley Visiting Lecturer under the sponsorship of the American Astronomical Society, and as a lecturer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium. He received the 1993 Quantrell Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the Univeristy of Chicago.

Introductory Comments: Cosmology

One of the oldest questions in science concerns the origin and structure of the universe. Every culture has had creation myths and models. From the time our ancestors first walked out of the jungle and looked upon the dark night sky in awe and wonder, the study of the universe has evoked the deepest, most profound human feelings. Those feelings are reflected in struggle to answer the question 'What is our place in the universe?' Our perception of the Universe, our cosmology, has served throughout the ages as a canvas upon which we have painted our view of our place in the universe.

Why study cosmology in high school? In addition to using the universe as a laboratory to illustrate the laws of physics, the study of cosmology can demonstrate the potential for understanding the universe on the basis of physical law. Every physics student knows that Newton discovered the law of gravity. However, they must also realize that an even greater insight of Newton's was the concept of the universality of gravity. The idea that forces measurable on earth are the same forces responsible for the motion of planets in the cosmos had an enormous social impact. The belief that the study of physics in terrestrial laboratories can shed light on the origin and structure of the universe has guided our modern efforts in cosmology.

Students elect to take physics because they have some curiosity about the physical world. I can think of no more exciting and challenging arena to nurture this curiosity than cosmology. How old is the universe? How big is it? Will it expand forever in the "big chill" or recollapse in the "big crunch?" These are questions that can excite the imagination and hold the student's interest. The universe is the ultimate playground for the curious mind.

The discovery of the expansion of the universe from red shifts of spectral lines from distant galaxies, understanding the minimum mass density of the universe necessary to halt the expansion of the universe in terms of escape velocity, the role of nuclear-binding energies in the production of helium three minutes after the bang, using Kepler's laws to argue that there is "dark matter" in the universe, are all examples that reveal how elementary physics can be used to understand the structure of the cosmos. It is crucial for students to realize that the laws of physics are not something only for the textbooks but make the universe work. Finally, whether the students realize it or not, their view of the universe plays an important role in their cultural heritage. They should be exposed to the scientific basis for this view.