How an accidental discovery became the key to understanding the universe

July 24, 2015 by Rhodri Evans, The Conversation
How an accidental discovery became the key to understanding the universe
Lucky find. Credit: NASA/wikimedia

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan had only just gone electric, mankind had yet to take its great leap and many people thought the Big Bang was something that happened when you burst a Big Balloon.

But in July 1965, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson made a discovery that would cement our understanding of how the universe came into being. Their detection of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the radiation left over from the birth of the universe, provided the strongest possible evidence that the universe expanded from an initial violent explosion, known as The Big Bang. Today, the CMB is still one of the most important signals that helps us understand the cosmos.

The light from the Big Bang, which happened almost 14 billion years ago, has been travelling through the universe ever since, allowing us to detect this "afterglow" on Earth. At the time it was discovered, there were two competing theories for the origin of the universe. One was the Big Bang theory and the other was "the Steady State theory", which stated that the universe has existed forever.

Since its initial discovery, astronomers have used the CMB to learn a great deal about the universe, such as its origins, its age, its composition, its rate of expansion and even its future.

Wilson (foreground) with Penzias in front of the Bell Labs horn radio antenna. Credit: wikimedia
Serendipitous finding

Penzias and Wilson were working with a very sensitive radio telescope at Bell Labs in New Jersey, looking for something completely different – neutral hydrogen – when they happened to stumble upon a strange signal from their telescope.

In order to detect such a faint signal, they needed to make sure they knew the source of every part of the signal their telescope was detecting. As such, they had to account for a number of peculiar things, such as badly insulated wires and even pigeon droppings in the horn of the antenna.

There was one part of the signal, however, that they could not eliminate. It was there day and night, throughout the year, and appeared wherever they were pointing their antenna. They were completely perplexed as to what it was, until Penzias ran into Bernard Burke, a radio astronomer working at the Department for Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington DC, on an aeroplane who urged him to phone Bob Dicke at Princeton University.

Dicke and his team were actually looking for the CMB, as their theoretical models suggested that a young, hot, dense universe would produce such radiation. They were months away from making their own measurements but Penzias and Wilson got there first. Dicke came off the phone to Penzias and said to his colleagues: "Boys, we've been scooped."

Their discovery was published in the July issue of the Astrophysical Journal with one of the most understated titles in the history of physics: "A measurement of excess antenna temperature at 4080 Mc/s". But hidden behind these words was one of the most important discoveries in the history of science – the first direct evidence that the universe had begun with the Big Bang.

It turns out the CMB had already been predicted in 1948 by a team led by Russian theoretician George Gamow. Dicke was unaware of this work when he published in 1965, so when the paper appeared, Gamow wrote to Dicke pointing out his team's earlier work, and from that point on the two teams have been jointly credited with the prediction. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their joint discovery of the CMB; neither Dicke nor Gamow got anything.

How an accidental discovery became the key to understanding the universe
CMB based on COBE data. NASA
Deciphering the CMB

Over the past 50 years, astronomers have gone on to examine the CMB in more and more detail. In the early 1970s theoreticians such as Jim Peebles at Princeton and Rashid Sunyaev and Yakov Zel'dovich in Russia realised that there should be structure in the CMB, called "anisotropies", and that these could be used to determine important parameters about the universe including its overall density, its age, and its future fate. However, the predicted structure would be manifested as tiny temperature variations, which were impossible to detect from ground-based telescopes.

In 1989 NASA launched the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which confirmed previous measurements of the CMB to exquisite accuracy in 1990. In 1992, it saw the anisotropies for the first time – a result hailed by COBE scientist George Smoot as "like seeing the fingerprints of God". However, COBE was not sensitive enough to determine the geometry of the universe, which is related to its fate via Einstein's theory of gravity.

Just a decade later, the balloon-borne telescope BOOMERANG was the first to measure the universe's geometry from the CMB, followed by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropies Probe (WMAP) satellite. In fact, WMAP confirmed BOOMERANG's findings with more accuracy and determined the universe's age, composition, and future. Europe's Planck satellite has confirmed WMAP's findings with even more accuracy, and has been measuring the polarisation of the CMB's light by matter in the more recent universe.

In March 2014 there was huge excitement when the BICEP2 team announced that their South Pole-based telescope had found the first ever evidence for "cosmic inflation", the idea that the universe expanded very rapidly in the first fraction of a second. However, by the autumn of 2014 this announcement had been found to have been flawed. The signal they had detected was more likely due to dust in our galaxy which they had failed to properly subtract from their signal.

Discoveries ahead

The quest is still on for the signs of cosmic inflation in the CMB, with researchers tackling extreme conditions at the South Pole and high in the Atacama Desert in Chile to search for the tell-tale signals. CMB research has reached maturity and we have entered an era of making precision measurements to find specific predictions of the Big Bang theory, with the evidence for gravitational waves, and hence for cosmic inflation, being one of the most important.

In the 50 years since its first discovery, it is no exaggeration to say that we have learnt more about the properties of the universe by studying the CMB than we have from any other single type of observation. Its first discovery in July 1965 is truly one of the landmarks of 20th century science.

Explore further: Researchers detect B-mode polarization in cosmic microwave background

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Lischyn
1 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2015
Not much news here
carlo_piantini
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 24, 2015
I have to wonder how rigorously other possible explanations for the source of the CMB were ruled out at the time of the signal's discovery. While the discovery of the signal was an arguably solid correct prediction for the model (as I understand, Dicke and Gramow predicted that the temperature signal would be significantly higher that 3K), I feel like it's an extremely large assumption that there is no other possible source for the signal, despite its isotropy.
viko_mx
1.4 / 5 (9) Jul 24, 2015
Understanding the universe while observing it only from the Earth? These people are impressive optimists.
viko_mx
1.3 / 5 (12) Jul 24, 2015
"So if everything in the entire universe contributes photons that will wind up as microwaves, why does it have to be the "after glow" of a 13.75 billion year old explosion, pardon me...beyond current physics expansion? "

There is no scientific reason. The idea is to be supported constantly the mithology of big bang that is needed to provide enought time for the biological evolution accordibng to their wishfull thinking.
docile
Jul 24, 2015
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docile
Jul 24, 2015
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docile
Jul 24, 2015
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carlo_piantini
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 24, 2015
Personally, I feel very strongly that theoretical physics has run rampant in the single field were it should be the most restricted, if not removed entirely. When you're working with distances of millions of light years, timespans of billions of years, and dealing with objects/mechanisms which you can have *barely* any form of intimate observation/measurement, the use of theoretical models should be done to the absolute bare minimum. If we still can't explain the sunspot cycle with any measure of accuracy, or even understand the structure of *our own planet's* plasmasphere, then its a complete absurdity to pretend that we can know what *may* have created the entire universe, ~14B years ago.

We should work on understanding our own solar system through *rigorous* laboratory models and extensive spacecraft missions, before attempting anything else.
El_Nose
1 / 5 (3) Jul 24, 2015
either way we can't prove it wrong until we gain FTL travel, so pipe down and go to sleep
billpress11
1 / 5 (10) Jul 24, 2015
The CMB does not even offer very good support for the BB theory. It offers perfect support for a SS infinite universe. The observed red-shift offers perfect support for the BB theory. It makes a SS infinite universe an impossibility.

What is needed is another explanation for the observed red-shift. There are some out there, here is the one I like best on page 16: http://www.scribd...-Physics

Is it a viable one, who knows, time and tests will tell.
shavera
4.5 / 5 (15) Jul 24, 2015
re "physics can't measure that" ideology.

When you take a measurement of temperature, how do you do it? Do you measure the internal energy of each particle and divide by the entropy of the system? Or do you find an analogue? Perhaps you measure the expansion of a fluid that correlates to temperature. Or you measure how resistance changes with temperature, or voltage across a thermocouple... perhaps you measure the light from blackbody radiation.

Nearly every measurement we ever make is somehow "abstracted" away from the thing we're observing.

But for some reason, cranks love to get on the idea that since we can't go out to a star and measure it, we don't know anything about it. We're really quite good at making complex inferences from the direct measurements we can make.

So unless you can specifically point out how the direct measurement (like spectrometry) cannot be used to infer some conclusion (like distance), please take the time to actually *learn* what we do first.
shavera
4.4 / 5 (14) Jul 24, 2015
bschott: you, specifically, demonstrate my point. You have no idea how we actually use spectrometry to measure red shifting. Atoms absorb or emit light at very specific frequencies. So when you find the same "pattern" of frequencies, but shifted down the spectrum, you know that *specifically* the light has red shifted for some reason or another.

But when light thermalizes (by being absorbed by a medium and then re-emitted at the temperature of that medium), you lose the spectral lines that the light was first emitted at.

cont.:
shavera
4.4 / 5 (14) Jul 24, 2015
So for very distant *objects* (like galaxies) we see spectral lines we know are red-shifted by some amount. But the CMB doesn't have spectral lines, it has a blackbody curve (with very small fluctuations of the corresponding temperature).

So when you take the measurements from the *objects* in the universe, you see an expanding universe. And when you take the predicted age of the universe, you see that a hot plasma in the early universe should be red-shifted into microwaves. Which is precisely what we see.

--

Cranks love to forget the process that science went through to get where we are today. Someone made observations. A theory was made to explain those observations. That theory predicted new observations. New observations were made that matched the theory's prediction.

Cranks just pretend modern physics was written down in one lump, like a religious tome. It definitely was not. Each page was fought over heavily at the time until they became well supported.
indio007
1.4 / 5 (10) Jul 24, 2015
COBE and PLANCK are experiments have a multiplicity of flaws. CMB is unproven.
barakn
2.9 / 5 (15) Jul 24, 2015
Every star in the universe is a full spectrum source of photons, the most numerous (brown dwarfs), transmit primarily in the IR. Every photon is "red-shifted" as it travels through space, all neutral matter absorbs photons and then transmits in the IR...which then become "red-shifted" to....what? Microwaves. -bschott
The CMB has the profile of a blackbody radiating at 2.725 K and different points in the sky deviate from that by only 40 millionths of a kelvin. If the light from opposite sides of the visible universe is only now meeting in the "middle" (Earth), how did both sides collude to be filled with neutral matter that is exactly the same temperature when even light hasn't had enough time to pass from one side to the other? And what is so special about that temperature? And when we measure the temperature of actual gas clouds in the Milkay Way and other galaxies, why are they typically not at the magical temperature?
carlo_piantini
2 / 5 (4) Jul 24, 2015
But for some reason, cranks love to get on the idea that since we can't go out to a star and measure it, we don't know anything about it. We're really quite good at making complex inferences from the direct measurements we can make.


I'll respond to this, since my comment was specifically about our ability to make measurements. With all due respect, I don't think that we are anywhere near as good at making these inferences as you do, but perhaps that's a simple matter of opinion and a personal stance on the degree of skepticism necessary for cosmology. For example, despite the wealth of information that we can measure about the Sun, both from here on Earth and from spacecraft, I'd suggest that we still have no *legitimate* idea about what is happening in the core of our star - and that is backed by our inability to even accurately model its regular cycles of activity. We *can't* predict how this cycle will work.
carlo_piantini
2.1 / 5 (7) Jul 24, 2015
I adamantly dislike the idea of building models from extrapolated mathematics, rather than laboratory reproduction. To come back to the Sun, I think it's a bit absurd that we've built a model of a star, and subsequently explained the abundance of elements, on a model of nuclear fusion that we cannot even replicate for ourselves in a lab. Am I saying that the hypothesis is wrong? No, not necessarily. But, I do think we take for granted the fact that is hasn't been proven - either through correct predictive models or laboratory evidence. I apply the same skepticism to any part of the LCDM model, which - for anyone who knows me - is why, in principle, I have a great deal of respect for people like Birkeland, Alfven, Bostick, etc., and am more in line with their general ideas/theories/models than the current paradigm, even though I study it right along side the mainstream literature and journals (to the best of my ability).
carlo_piantini
2.7 / 5 (6) Jul 24, 2015
Despite what we *can* measure, the simple and obvious truth is that we can't presently observe/measure/experiment with a galaxy, in the same way we can with say, a chemical reaction or cell tissue in the lab. We just can't. And I think, very genuinely, that it's irresponsible to assume that we understand the *beginning of the universe*, when we've barely understood our planet's own plasma structure, or our sun, or our own solar system. Particularly when so little of it has been reproduced in a lab. For me, that's what it always comes back to - can you model it in the lab? If not, then for me, it just isn't that convincing. If that makes me a crank, then so be it I suppose...

Take, for perfect example, the CMB. How in the world can we *possibly* be sure, that this signal doesn't have some other explicable source? We can't. Yet, it's taken as definitive proof for the BB. I don't like that approach.
docile
Jul 24, 2015
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indio007
1.6 / 5 (7) Jul 24, 2015
The microwave source is known. Its the oceans of earth. See Pierre Robiatille...
Mike_Massen
3 / 5 (10) Jul 24, 2015
viko_mx stated
Understanding the universe while observing it only from the Earth? These people are impressive optimists
Only because of the consistency within Physics & Mathematics AND the most important of all "The balance of Probability".

In that respect viko_mx, tell us how your deity - which you often proselytize on this site, how it communicates ?

On the balance of probabilities it doesn't exist, only arises from claims of a small number of men :-(

Which is far more likely; Universe has patterns of self-assembly builtin rigorously in respect of Physics & Maths with no personal deity favoring handful of humans

OR

A personal deity that punished all of creation for ever because it allowed its chief angel to lie to a girl ?

What has far more evidence, this deity viko_mx or our observations of the universe within the developing consistency of physics & mathematics ?

Why more weight viko_mx to moses ahead of mohammed being the most recent ?

Learn Physics !
docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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thingumbobesquire
1 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
In the beginning there was nothing. And ever and anon we have those we call astronomers attempting to tell a story of how physical "stuff" we see out there came from naught. But even more perplexing is how their own minds were created that tell these stories of creation from time immemorial. Perhaps consciousness is a sort of cosmic background that needs to be accounted for in this narrative, otherwise they are missing the most important "stuff" of all.
docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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docile
Jul 25, 2015
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Mike_Massen
3.4 / 5 (10) Jul 25, 2015
Ren82 asked
If you can give an example for increasing the order in one physical system due to random events and the existing physical laws..
FFS, I have been down this rabbit hole with you before.

Learn Physics PLEASE !

NOT random, you really are hypnotised by an old middle eastern book and CANNOT understand straightforward Physics is NOT random !

Eg (AGAIN) H2 & O2 with sufficient "Activation Energy" combine to form H2O, this increases order in the system

Same re production of RNA base, early Earth atmosphere easily produces Formamide which leads to Guanine ie more self-assembly order !

ie. ANOTHER example of self-assembly, it happens all the time according to Physics & NOT random.

Alternative is a book which (only) claims a deity punished all of creation for Ever because the deity allowed his chief angel to lie to a girl

Is this sane ?

ie God=Evil !

Do you follow this deity as parenting example ?

Why is your god BAD at communications ?
carlo_piantini
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
Yes we can. You do not have a clue what you are talking about.
https://en.wikipe..._process


With respect, my comment was in reference to the ability to create a stable, sustained, net positive fusion reaction - something which, unless I'm mistaken, we have not been able to achieve yet. Unless I missed that news. My apologies for not being clear.

Yes we have, since 1958.
https://en.wikipe...ion_belt


No, we haven't. Which is why we keep making new discoveries like these two, which happened in just the last few months:
-http://sci.esa.in...l-noise/
-http://www.atlaso...mosphere

Had it not been for Cluster, we would have no idea that this well-defined structured existed. Mine in a simple, rational critique of the need for significantly more skepticism in cosmology. That's all.
carlo_piantini
1 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2015
We CAN replicate the reactions believed to fuel the sun in our labs.


Yes, we can. And that's fairly impressive. But the issue I'm trying to discuss is the fact that without being able to study the core of a star intimately through instruments, or study the evolution of a star in a laboratory scale, we have no genuine idea that this process is even taking place. Despite our ability to incorporate the hypothesis into a consistent mathematical framework, it remains completely hypothetical.

The fact that new discoveries are made means we do not understand everything, which is not that we do not understand
What we do not understand *could* be critical components in how the mechanism of our solar system operates. Which again, brings me to the point of lab modeling and reproduction being absolutely critical to formulating larger frameworks to study cosmology. To me, much more than mathematics.
carlo_piantini
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
I agree that the extrapolation involved in the BB hypothesis is far fetched and that skepticism is healthy and important but it should work in two directions. Skepticism is a one way street for many posters here.


I think that's fair enough, and my posting here - along with the responses I've received - have helped me realize the need to apply my skepticism to all ideas, even the ones I have a personal bias towards, like Alfven's (though I still think he was, in terms of general theory, on the correct track). Honestly, I'm at a point where I just want to get into a lab, run experiments everyday, and pour through *all* of the literature for myself. That's the end game in my book.
carlo_piantini
2.7 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
For me though, our ability to determine "what is accurate" drops off proportionally with our ability to study these objects in depth, which should clearly be exacerbated by any faults in our knowledge of the one object that we *can* study up-close, our own star. For example, we can't send a spacecraft like Ulysses to a distant star the same way that we can send it to the Sun. So our ability to determine how accurately model describes *other* stars in inherently much more limited. And when there is something that our model can't accurately describe, say our star's *supposed* internal dynamo and its sunspot cycle - which we cannot predict with accuracy - it should clearly mean that can't apply that dynamo model to other stars with any degree of confidence.
carlo_piantini
1.5 / 5 (2) Jul 25, 2015
then that model becomes the next nearest thing to the truth


Personally, I don't like this approach - although, again, that may be a matter of opinion. I think the appropriate degree of skepticism to apply to cosmology should be "until we can replicate our model in a lab, and study it intimately - or, conversely, we gain the ability to study the object itself in better detail - then a model that reasonably describes what we *can* measure with accuracy should be just that, a decent hypothesis that *will most likely* be proven incorrect by further measurement and lab research."
carlo_piantini
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
Your doubts are entirely meaningless, if not ridiculous, without a thorough review of existing knowledge and observations. Without any knowledge it is futile to criticize a field as mature as stellar evolution.


I guess we disagree then? Feel free to carry on in your own way, and I'll do the same with mine. Thanks for the discussion.
carlo_piantini
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2015
So your requirement is that cosmology models be validated inside some kind of laboratory. Well they are. The laboratory is called the universe. Check !


Um...no. Not at all.
indio007
1 / 5 (4) Jul 25, 2015
WMAP: A Radiological Analysis

Authors: Pierre-Marie Robitaille

In this work, results obtained by the WMAP satellite are analyzed by invoking established practices for signal acquisition and processing in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Dynamic range, image reconstruction, signal to noise, resolution, contrast, and reproducibility are specifically discussed. WMAP images do not meet accepted standards in medical imaging research. WMAP images are obtained by attempting to remove a galactic foreground contamination which is 1,000 times more intense than the desired signal. Unlike water suppression in biological NMR, this is accomplished without the ability to affect the signal at the source and without a priori knowledge. Resulting WMAP images have an exceedingly low signal to noise (maximum 1–2) and are heavily governed by data processing. etc.. http://vixra.org/...21v1.pdf
IMP-9
3.9 / 5 (11) Jul 26, 2015
Mr. Hubble is known as an opponent of Big Bang and expanding Universe model and his arguments didn't change their validity after his death - on the contrary.


Lie. What you've managed to chop out is Hubble's primary objection, that an expanding with Hubble's original constant universe couldn't be old enough to explain geology. Why is this no longer a problem, because Hubble's value was deeply flawed, the true value was a tenth. His argument has changed, it's not a factor anymore.

The microwave source is known. Its the oceans of earth. See Pierre Robiatille...


Who is demonstrably wrong for the detection of the Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect. The SZ effect is where the free electrons in a galaxy cluster scatter the CMB light to higher frequencies. As a result you get a non-Planckian spectrum over clusters. A local model such as Robiatille cannot explain the why the CMB gets dimmer over clusters at low frequencies. It's debunked.
IMP-9
3.8 / 5 (10) Jul 26, 2015
WMAP images are obtained by attempting to remove a galactic foreground contamination which is 1,000 times more intense than the desired signal.


Untrue. In the 70-100 GHz range the CMB anisotropy dominates over the foreground for most of the sky.
indio007
1.8 / 5 (5) Jul 26, 2015
IMP-9, quite frankly your speaking gobbly gook. Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect relies on the a priori assumption that CMB exists.

You already tried the SZ card in another post and failed. Did you think I forgot?

It's real simple why CMB is bunk. They sent up PHYSICALLY flawed instrumentation that is not capable of the necessary experimental fidelity. it doesn't end there though. Add in copious amounts of digital processing, data smoothing and mathamagics and you get straight fraud.

This statement by you "the 70-100 GHz range the CMB anisotropy dominates over the foreground for most of the sky."

How do you know that? How do you differentiate noise from signal? A shit load of assumptions and more numerical voodoo.
You claim signal domination. Prove it.
What's the SNR at that frequency range?
docile
Jul 26, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
IMP-9
4 / 5 (8) Jul 26, 2015
Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect relies on the a priori assumption that CMB exists.


Not to observe it. The SZ effect has been used to successfully discover hundreds of galaxy clusters, how could this be if the CMB doesn't exist?

PHYSICALLY flawed instrumentation that is not capable of the necessary experimental fidelity.


I don't agree with Robiatille's dismissals one bit, I've already pointed to flaws in his claims. He's looking for issues, his claims don't make sense and they simply don't explain the observations. How could galaxy clusters create a dimmer spot on a background which is produced by the oceans? Not explained.

IMP-9
3.7 / 5 (9) Jul 26, 2015
How do you know that? How do you differentiate noise from signal?


You can take the 70 GHz channel and subtract the 100 GHz map. What you get is an image of the galactic foreground plus noise, the foreground jumps out because it's not fixed in intensity with frequency. The CMB anisotropy drops out entirely, the level of the noise is much smaller than the anisotropy . If it was noise it would not be the same between bands, there is also no reason it should be correlated between pixels. The CMB anisotropy should however be invariant of frequency.

A demonstration of this can be seen on page 6 (number on bottom of page not pdf) of this talk.

http://arachne.pr...ence.pdf

These two different maps are made by two different instruments (Robiatille only covered one) and yet they both agree. It's not noise. The SNR per pixel is about 5. The SNR of a 1 deg fluctuation can be hundreds.
rgw
5 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2015
This accidental discovery followed the more important accidental finding that the medieval Catholic Curia was made up of blithering, megalomaniacal idiots.
Benni
1.5 / 5 (8) Jul 26, 2015
Go on in ignorance then !


We don't have a choice.......you won't provide a "simple calculation". We're missing so much here, and it's 50% your fault & 50% IMP's fault.You two won't take the wraps off all those vaunted simple calculations you cling so secretively.

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