First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation!

The imprint of the Big Bang

The imprint of the Big Bang: B-mode polarization (the swirls) of light coming the first fraction of a second after the birth of the Universe itself. Photo by BICEP2 Collaboration

A team of astrophysicists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have announced that, for the first time, they have directly confirmed the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation, as well as the first images of gravitational waves, the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. Working the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) microwave telescope located at the South Pole, reported their results in a scientific briefing at the Center for Astrophysics here on Monday, and in a set of papers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

The BICEP team detected peculiar fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, distant radiation left over from the beginning of the universe itself, not in its temperature, but in its polarization. Like visible light waves, this early radiation can be polarized, wiggling and oscillating in a given direction, or even in a spiral. By analyzing the particular pattern of that polarization, we can then walk backwards and figure out what gave rise to those patterns in the very, very early universe.

Back in 1978, when he had just gotten his Ph.D., physicist Alan Guth scribbled a “spectacular realization” in his lab notebook that predicted the results reported today:

Alan Guth spectacular realization

He formally proposed inflationary theory in 1980, when he was a postdoctoral scholar at SLAC. Instead of the universe beginning as a rapidly expanding fireball, Guth theorized that the universe inflated extremely rapidly from a tiny piece of space and became exponentially larger in a fraction of a second.

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