In an astounding discovery, on Monday the 17th March, Physicists have found a long-predicted twist in light from the big bang that represents the first image of ripples in the universe called gravitational waves, researchers announced today. The finding is direct proof of the theory of inflation, the idea that the universe expanded extremely quickly in the first fraction of a nanosecond after it was born.
Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called 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. John Kovac and his colleagues call this discovery smoking gun evidence of the Big Bang.
Alan Guth was one of the first physicists to hypothesize the existence of inflation, which explains how the universe expanded so uniformly and so quickly in the instant after the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. The discovery also means that inflation began even earlier than some models predicted, at one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the big bang.
Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at M.I.T., wrote in an email, “I think that if this stays true, it will go down as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science.” It is just under two years since the path breaking discovery of Higgs-Boson particle at CERN on 22nd June 2012. The Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Leon Lederman, the former director of Fermilab, called it the “God particle,” in his book of the same name, written with Dick Teresi. (He later said that he had wanted to call it the “goddamn particle.” – because it was so elusive ?).
“This is huge,” says Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, who was not involved in the discovery but who predicted back in 1997 how these gravitational wave imprints could be found. “It’s not every day that you wake up and find out something completely new about the early universe. To me this is as Nobel Prize–worthy as it gets.”
Like Peter Higgs who did not expect the discovery of Higgs-Boson during his lifetime, Alan Guth is also overwhelmed at discovery of the gravitational waves. To my mind, if the elusive Higgs-Boson is the God particle, the primordial gravitational waves could God’s signature for the creation of the Universe with a Big Bang.
Read more from Scientific American and the NY Times article.