Great movie that clearly explains how gravitational waves were discovered and their significance to our understanding of the universe
In the beginning there was the Big Bang. A quintillionth of a second later, the universe, teetering in an unstable energy state, suddenly and spectacularly ballooned from smaller than a proton to bigger than anything we can imagine. It hasn’t stopped expanding since.
That ultra-brief moment of cosmic inflation created gravitational waves or ripples in the fabric of space-time that were finally detected by a team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics using a specialized microwave telescope in Antarctica called BICEP-2 or Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization. Stretched and flattened by billions of years of universal expansion since the Big Bang, the waves bearing the signature of inflation are now a mere whisper in space. It took the team nine years to find them.
Like water waves whose constant lapping of the shoreline leave their imprint as ripples in the sand, gravitational waves left their imprint in the Cosmic Background Radiation (CMB), the relic radiation left over from the Big Bang that warms all of space to 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.
Cosmic inflation theory has always hidden in the shadows of the heavily-publicized Big Bang at least in the public’s eye. Sure, inflation does a great job of explaining our present-day universe, but without evidence it remained an unproven theory. The Big Bang on the other hand has plenty of hard evidence to back it up.
Stanford assistant professor of physics Chao-Lin Kuo delivers the news of today’s breakthrough discovery to Inflation theorist Andrei Linde. Must see!
Inflation was conceived in 1979 by American theoretical physicist Alan Guth and extended by then-Soviet physicist Andrei Linde as a way to explain thorny problems the Big Bang couldn’t fully address. Things like:
* Why the universe appears flat – a line drawn in any direction in space will always remain straight no matter how many light years it extends.
* Why it’s so uniform – look in any direction and the stuff you see is the same as in any other direction.
* How small submicroscopic fluctuations in the Big Bang’s energy field became the seeds for the formation of huge things like stars and galaxies.
Guth and Linde proposed that prior to inflation, when the universe was microscopically small, everything got to mix and mingle before inflation blasted it all to the far corners of the universe. Today we look out through our telescopes and see the same structures and materials no matter what direction we point.
As for flatness, inflation would have taken any curvature present at the start of our universe and flattened it out like a balloon blown so big that no matter where you stood on it, the surface would appear flat as far as you could see.
Finally, those sub-microscopic quantum fluctuations (tiny energy fluctuations in empty space), some of which were slightly hotter and denser than others, were magnified to cosmic proportions through inflation. As the universe evolved, they acted as seeds for the formation of everything from dark matter to luminous stars and galaxies.
I know, it all sounds pretty incredible. Sometimes scientists work on a theory for decades before producing experimental proof of the idea. Finding proof of inflation in the imprint of gravitational waves in the CMB is reason for great celebration. I loved watching Andrei Linde’s reaction to the news. Hey – we were on the right track!
Naturally, the team’s results will have to be confirmed. Assuming they are, inflation will stand on its own two feet and join the Big Bang as part of the surprising story of how you and I got here in the first place.