A group of researchers led by Harvard associate astronomy professor John M. Kovac, announced on Monday in a panel discussion at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that it has discovered the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation, a theory that may alter the way people understand the origins of the universe.
First proposed in 1980 by now-MIT professor Alan H. Guth, cosmic inflation theorizes that the universe expanded exponentially in fractions of a second after the Big Bang occurred almost 14 billion years ago. Guth has postulated that this “bang” was caused by a form of gravitational repulsion.
The collaboration, led by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology, and the University of Minnesota, worked with BICEP2, a telescope on the South Pole, which, according to the team, observed the universe’s cosmic microwave background—faint, residual light from the Big Bang. While observing the light, the team discovered a polarization pattern that strongly suggests the existence of cosmic inflation.
“This is opening a window, what we believe is a new regime of physics,” said Kovac, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which since 1955 has brought together the resources of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory.
After more than three years of analyzing data, the team also detected gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time. These waves have been predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity, but until now have never been observed.
According to a press release issued by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, “These waves have been described as the ‘first tremors of the Big Bang.’” The data also confirm a connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity, the team announced.
Kovac said Monday that the detection of gravitational waves, in addition to the evidence of cosmic inflation, has the potential to teach people about physics at its “extreme frontiers.”
Yet according to Clement Pryke, a cosmologist at the University of Minnesota who worked on the collaboration, the team, as well as the scientific community, is “not completely done” with the research process.
“This is not just the end, this is the beginning,” he said, noting that the results of the BICEP2 research have not yet been published in a journal and must await confirmation by additional experiments.
Still, according to Marc Kamionkowski, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the project but sat on Monday’s panel, the implications of the study will forever alter the way people think about the universe,
“This is not something that’s a home run, it’s a grand slam,” he said.
—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at email@example.com Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.