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The Nature of Reality

First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation

17 Mar 2014, 17:56 UTC
First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation
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When Alan Guth proposed the theory of cosmic inflation almost 35 years ago, he wondered whether it would ever be possible to prove his hypothesis that the universe ballooned up exponentially in the first moments after the Big Bang. There was ample indirect evidence: the universe’s surprisingly uniform temperature, the apparent “flatness” of spacetime, and the conspicuous absence of magnetic monopoles. In the years that followed, astronomers used satellites like WMAP and Planck to search for echoes of the inflationary era in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Their results lined up with many inflationary predictions, but fell short of being the “smoking gun” that would have had Guth and other theorists popping their champagne.

Well, bring on the bubbly: Using a telescope called BICEP2, a team of astronomers led by John Kovac (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) has detected a polarization pattern in the microwave background radiation that is the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation. This “B-mode” polarization is a “twisty” pattern created by gravitational waves. The discovery is also the first direct image of gravitational waves.

The 10-meter South Pole Telescope and the BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) Telescope at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Credit: Keith Vanderlinde, ...

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