This post was update at 4:00 p.m. ET.
Researchers say they’ve discovered that gravitational waves rippled through the fabric of space-time in the first sliver of a second after the Big Bang — the first direct evidence for a mysterious, ultrarapid expansion at the dawn of the universe. If confirmed, it would represent one of the most profound insights in decades to emerge from the field of cosmology.
Scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics used an experiment known as Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization — BICEP2 — which involves a telescope based at the South Pole, to detect waves in the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background at just 10-35 of a second after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago.
How small a moment is that? For the 13.7 blog, astrophysicist Adam Frank defines it as “a decimal point with 34 zeros after it, which looks like this: T = 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 second.”
Among the most important implications of the discovery would be for what’s called inflation theory, an idea first posited in the 1980s by physicist Alan Guth.
The New York Times writes:
“Inflation has been the workhorse of cosmology for 35 years, though many, including Dr. Guth, wondered whether it could ever be proved.
“If corroborated, [astronomer John M.] Kovac’s work will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.”
Inflation, according to Frank, who did not take part in the research, is something that can be thought of as an “inflating balloon” in which a tiny pocket of space-time is stretched to become the entire observable universe.
“The violence of the early universe was so extreme that it would leave space-time itself ringing like a bell. Almost as soon as inflation was proposed some scientists predicted that in would leave a ‘gravity wave’ signature,” Frank says.
That first microsecond came well before the galaxies, stars and planets that make up our familiar present-day universe.
As The Associated Press writes: “Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars. The universe has continued to spread out.”
But possibly proving Guth’s inflation theory is not the only implication of the new research, says NPR’s Geoff Brumfiel. It could also help rationalize ideas of the very large (Einsteinian gravitation) and the very small (quantum mechanics) that didn’t seem to want to play nice together.
“These waves are produced in gravity, but they exist within the context of inflation, which is fundamentally quantum mechanical.
“So, this might go some way toward unifying the two,” Brumfiel says.
“This is really exciting. We have made the first direct image of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time across the primordial sky, and verified a theory about the creation of the whole universe,” says Chao-Lin Kuo, an assistant professor of physics at Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and co-leader of the BICEP2 collaboration.
Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, at Arizona State University, said that if verified, the discovery “gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning.”
“It’s just amazing,” he is quoted by the AP as saying. “You can see back to the beginning of time.”