As a science writer, it’s alarmingly easy to overstate a scientific discovery’s importance. I often must go out of my way to dial back the enthusiasm, mercilessly editing out words like “groundbreaking” and “revolutionary” after I lose control in a first draft. But if the recent discovery of polarization in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation is confirmed, it will be very hard to exaggerate its significance.
“This is so big that we haven’t figured out how big it is,” said Michael Turner, director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, in a recent video hangout with members of the team behind BICEP2, the experiment that recently garnered the kind of breathless headlines I have so often tried to tame. BICEP2 detected a distinctive polarization pattern in the CMB that is thought to be the imprint of the dramatic inflation that morphed our universe from “tiny” to “cosmic” in the first 10-35 second after the Big Bang. If confirmed, it will be the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation and our earliest ever glimpse into the action of the newborn universe.
Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr, adapted under a Creative Commons license.
Perhaps most tantalizing to researchers, it might also reveal the ...