“Gravity waves,” BICEP, and the birth of the universe?

BICEP2 at the South Pole
The BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole

We may know that the universe began with a Big Bang, but until yesterday, we had no direct evidence for the drastic expansion the universe is thought to have undergone in the moments after its birth. This “inflationary” model has grown from a speculation in 1979 into the best available explanation of how the universe’s infant moments (less than a trillionths of a trillionth of a second) formed crucial aspects of our universe today.

Setting up telescopes in Antarctica, where the cool, dry air is ideal for sky-watching, the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2 for short) team collected data on oldest light in the universe. They found that this light bears the lingering effects of gravity waves produced during inflation. If BICEP’s results are correct, then this confirmation of inflation would be an achievement that is more surprising than finding to the Higgs Boson and surely Nobel Prize worthy. Furthermore, these observations of early-universe relics are the first look into conditions so extreme that they exceed any achievable through earthly means (i.e. with particle colliders). If their results are correct, don’t worry, there are still more questions to be answered. Why did inflation start and then stop? What can it tell us about quantum gravity?

For more information, check out Harvard’s AstroBites and the “Keep reading” links below this article.

Special thanks to Harvard Ph.D student Greg Kestin for his knowledge and perspective on the subject!

Managing editor: Amy I. Gilson 

Keep reading (and watching!):

NYT – Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun by Dennis Overbye
BBC Video – Newsnight: Big bang scientist on a groundbreaking discovery
AstroBites – BICEP2 results: inflation and the tensor modes by Zachary Slepian
Washington Post – Evidence spotted for universe’s early growth by AP

And for more detail:

The Reference Frame – BICEP2: Primordial Gravitation Waves! by Liam McAllister
Sean Carroll’s Blog – Gravitational Waves in the Cosmic Microwave Background
UC Berkeley – CMB Polarization: The Next Key Toward the Origin of the Universe by Yuki D. Takahashi
Scientific American – Echoes from the Big Bang by Robert R. Caldwell and Marc Kamionkowski in 2001


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