In 1927, when an obscure Belgian priest named Georges Lemaitre first proposed the theory of creation now known as the Big Bang, nobody paid much attention. Even Albert Einstein gave him the brushoff.

Nine days ago, that primeval explosion reverberated around the globe in headlines and sound bites when George Smoot, a brash young physicist from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, announced that his team had used a revolutionary combination of instruments in orbit and computers on the ground to uncover a long-sought missing link in the theory's supporting evidence.

They found "ripples in the fabric of space-time" that they believe were formed in the first trillionth of a second of the explosive moment of creation, dictating the shape and form of today's universe, including its island of inquisitive humanity.

That announcement has galvanized the normally reticent ranks of cosmologists, moving them to rare and emotional superlatives.

"It is the discovery of the century, if not of all time," physicist Stephen Hawking told Reuter. The renowned Cambridge professor, often hailed as Einstein's successor, wrote the best-selling book, "A Brief History of Time."

Big Bang theorist Joseph Silk of the University of California at Berkeley wrote in the April 30 issue of the journal Nature that, "We are viewing the birth of the universe."

But the new findings -- based on data from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft -- also struck a deep chord in the general populace. Ted Koppel and Bryant Gumbel puzzled over it on national television. The obscure band of scientists who conceived and executed the experiment suddenly found themselves the most unlikely media darlings of the year. Already low on sleep because of long hours of preparing for (and arguing about) the big announcement, they all but disappeared in a Warholian media explosion of their own.

Smoot, who lives part time near his Berkeley, Calif., lab, also has a home near NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which manages the COBE project. "I didn't get any sleep for many nights. I went out to mow my lawn in Maryland Saturday and this photographer -- he said he was from Paris Match -- showed up and wanted to take my picture. And people {at work} have started to look at me funny."

The Berkeley laboratory "has nine Nobel laureates, but we've never had interest like this," said Jeffery Kahn, a science writer at the University of California facility. "It's been frenzied. You can't dig out from underneath it. . . . This bears on the question that every human being that ever lived has asked: How did all this get here?"

About 800 scientists worldwide are on the mailing list for copies of the scientific analysis of the discovery.

Some say the announcement had such impact because the scientists' themes are in apparent harmony with the biblical vision of creation recorded centuries ago by scribes who had no inkling of relativity, particle physics or other elements of modern cosmology.

Some, including Smoot, have compared the finding to a glimpse of God. They say many of their non-media phone calls are from priests and others interested in the religious connotations. Some scientists have compared the findings to the biblical moment when "God said, Let there be light." (The scientists balked when told of one headline saying the satellite had "found God.")

Nonetheless, John Mather of Goddard said, "The story we found is very parallel to the story in Genesis. The universe starts with a great burst of light." The owlish, soft-spoken scientist has been hailed by colleagues as the "visionary architect" of the COBE satellite.

Mather said he had just been interviewed by the Catholic Television Network, and had gone back to reread his Bible. "The Bible has things in the same sequence as we have. It's just a question of what you mean by a 'day.' "

Throughout most of human history the notion of cosmic genesis was the exclusive preserve of dreamers, poets, seers and the odd Belgian priest. Only in the past few decades has science developed instruments that can actually peer into the depths of the cosmos -- and thus into the ancient past -- as if it were a gargantuan laboratory.

Cosmologists had been searching for these elusive ripples for 27 years. Some such mechanism was absolutely necessary to bridge the gap between the uniformly smooth universe of the initial Big Bang fireball and the lumpy universe of today -- the firmament of stars and galaxies, superclusters and great voids, of animals, minerals and vegetables.

Yet decades of attempts to measure the distant echoes (the "cosmic background" in COBE's name) from the primordial bang had shown just the opposite: The background appeared perfectly uniform in all directions, raising concerns about the Big Bang theory. But now the new findings have eliminated in a heartbeat a number of other theories.

Upon hearing the COBE results at a meeting of physicists here, Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel pronounced "dead" a theory he had just coauthored. But he said this week, "This is very exciting. Cosmology has become a quantitative science. . . . Up to now, you could get away with doing very rough calculations. But these {COBE} observations are going to change the way we think about cosmology."

Or at least the way scientists think about it. For the layman, the topic involves concepts that are often literally unimaginable, drawn from the fun house realm of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which laid the theoretical foundations for the Big Bang.

In this cosmogonic twilight zone, space and time are the same, parallel lines are not parallel, and light is bent by the titanic forces of gravity. The ordinary physics and geometry of everyday life don't apply.

Cosmology is also the junction where the astronomers meet the physicists, where the study of the most immense structures in the universe links up with matter at the very smallest scale -- subatomic particles such as quarks and leptons which, scientists believe, inhabited the Big Bang's expanding sphere.

Exotic though it sounds, a Big Bang is viewed by many as the simplest explanation for what modern scientists have been able to observe, beginning with American astronomer Edwin Hubble's discovery in the 1920s that distant galaxies appear to be rushing outward from Earth at huge and accelerating speeds -- and thus that the universe is expanding in all directions.

According to Lemaitre's theory, space and time began on "a day without a yesterday," when all the raw material for today's universe exploded from a point of infinite density. It was with scorn that an astrophysicist who found the notion distasteful dubbed it the Big Bang.

But the theory gained mainstream acceptance in 1964, when Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Laboratories noticed a strange static in the new, highly sensitive microwave detector they were testing. After eliminating bird droppings and Earth's atmosphere as a cause, they found the noise was not related to Earth's rotation, or to the sun, or any other nearby source. It came from . . . everywhere.

They had found what most scientists believe to be the "fossil remains" of the primeval fireball that burst about 15 billion years ago, give or take 5 billion years. The amount of this microwave glow that reaches an individual on Earth is no more than one ten-millionth of the power used by a 100-watt light bulb. It has grown weak on its journey from that instant of birth. Its average temperature is minus 454 degrees Fahrenheit, only a couple of degrees above absolute zero.

But this glow of creation was observed to be absolutely uniform in all directions, presumably mirroring the smoothness of the early universe -- the expanding, cooling fireball. That left a big gap in the scenario: How did the universe get from smooth to lumpy?

Cosmological theories proliferated like wildflowers. So did the number of possible ways to test them, as well as the potential problems for Mather, who directed the development of COBE in the mid-1970s and has spent most of his career on the project. Smoot was asked to join the team when a Berkeley colleague declined the opportunity. The scientists tried to adjust COBE's design, as it waited for launch aboard the shuttle, in an effort to keep up.

After an interesting new theory about the speed of the Big Bang (known as inflation) was devised in 1981, Smoot said he went back to NASA management and asked for a more sensitive instrument to fly aboard COBE. NASA gave it to him, "but they made me take something else off. We gained a factor of two in sensitivity and that made this {discovery} possible."

What COBE actually measured were faint temperature variations in the microwave glow of only 31 millionths of a degree from one point to another. These variations, the scientists say, reflect varying densities in the fireball -- whatever it was at that point -- as it expanded and cooled, and as the first vast but wispy clouds of gas somehow began to aggregate.

There is still a small band of skeptics who insist there was never a Big Bang.

Smoot, 47, brims with confidence and humor, and also shows a flair for the dramatic. Returning from research in the Antarctic, colleagues said, he once appeared at a meeting of COBE scientists wearing a tuxedo in honor of the penguins he had seen.

He conceded that some members of his team argued against presenting results so soon, but "I said, 'No. I'm ready to come out and stand by the results. That's why NASA made me principal investigator.' "

Another member of the team, Alan Kogut of Goddard, agreed. "This is probably one of the best-tested experiments in cosmology."

Smoot said he had assigned a team of eight people to spend half a year just looking for errors in the complex measurements. And colleagues remember his sending a computer E-mail message offering his collected frequent-flier mileage to anyone who could find an error.

Actually, numerous errors were found, said Nancy Boggess of Goddard, another lead COBE scientist, and the research papers "were undergoing tremendous flux." For example, they had to find out if the moon was in the way of the observations, eliminate the effects of the Earth's magnetic field on the spacecraft's iron switches, and so on. The corrective effort was vast and detailed, she said, but in the end "we satisfied ourselves."

COBE has another year of unanalyzed data "in the can" that is expected to strengthen the revelations, the scientists said. Other groups are gearing up to perform experiments with balloons and special instruments in the Antarctic to check the COBE data.

"The field will be advancing very rapidly in the next five years," said Princeton's Spergel. "We'll have to buckle down. I think we are all going to be working very hard."

The universe envisioned by Isaac Newton, and at first even by Albert Einstein, was one in a "steady state" of infinite age and changeless structure. But a rival theory has come to dominate modern thinking.

1917: Willem deSitter puts forward the idea that the whole universe might be expanding or contracting.

1927: Georges Lemaitre proposes the Big Bank theory - that the universe was born in a cataclysm when a dense ball of material erupted.

1929: Edwin Hubble shows that faint nebulae are receding from Earth at great speeds, supporting the idea of an expanding universe.

1940s: George Gamow, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman examine the proportion of hydrogen and helium, the two simplest elements, in the universe. They predicted about 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium in the universe, in line with nuclear reactions, created in an extremely hot Big Bang.

1964: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories notice strange static coming from the sky, which they believed to be residual noise from a primeval fireball. The Big Bang theory becomes an accepted standard of cosmology.

1970s: Electronic photography makes it possible to study more distant and fainter galaxies. The big question becomes: How did a smoothly uniform Big Bang turn into huge clusters of matter?

1974: Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite is proposed to measure cosmic background radiation, electrons moing in the space between stars and the light of the first stars and galaxies.

1980s: The study of subatomic particles advances. Scientists theorize that the early universe exploded from a small bundle of particles no larger than a baseball.

1989: COBE launched into orbit 559 miles above Earth.

April 1992: George Smoot of Lawrence Berkely Laboratory announces discovery of "ripples in the fabric of space-time" that created galaxies and empty spaces.

Sources: NASA, "The Big Bang" by Joseph Silk.