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The Nature of Reality

Will the BICEP2 Results Hold Up?

27 May 2014, 16:00 UTC
Will the BICEP2 Results Hold Up? Steffen Richter, Harvard University
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Two months ago, astronomers announced that they had detected gravitational waves from the dawn of time, the strongest evidence yet that the universe experienced a titanic growth spurt in the first moments after the Big Bang, a phenomenon called cosmic inflation. Scientists and the media—including this blog—buzzed with the news. However, a controversy that began with online rumors now might call these findings into question.

The BICEP2 telescope at twilight. Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University
The signal the astronomers detected was a subtle one. Using a telescope at the South Pole called BICEP2, they picked up swirls in the polarization, or alignment, of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang. This pattern, they argued, resembled what one would expect from gravitational waves produced by inflation. These findings not only seemed to be the first direct evidence for inflation, but also were an image of the earliest gravitational waves, the ripples in spacetime predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
“Seeing evidence for such a phase of rapid expansion would be extremely exciting, and it is possible that that’s what BICEP2 is seeing,” said Raphael Flauger, a theoretical physicist at New York University and the Institute ...

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