In the scientific discovery of the year, if not the decade, scientists have found the first images of gravitational waves: ripples in space-time that provide the first direct evidence of cosmic inflation.
The inflation, which has only been theory until now, is evidence of the extremely rapid expansion of the universe.
After 14bn years of the universe existing, the new findings by the BICEP2 collaboration, an international team of scientists, provide the most substantial evidence for the theory of the Big Bang.
Their work also provides the first images of gravitational waves – described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.”
The waves were the final untested prediction of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – which he predicted almost 100 years ago in 1916.
The news confirms heavy rumours from within the physics community about the team’s research, which they have checked and double checked for the last three years.
Their data also confirms a deep connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity.
One of the project’s co-leaders, Clem Pryke, said: “This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar.”
While not fully proving the Big Bang Theory happened, the team have proved that a huge expansion happened in space, which created the waves. The inflation theory is the most accepted model of how the Big Bang happened.
Harvard theorist Avi Loeb said: “This work offers new insights into some of our most basic questions: Why do we exist? How did the universe begin?
“These results are not only a smoking gun for inflation, they also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was.”
Gravitational waves squeeze space as they travel, and this squeezing produces a distinct pattern in the cosmic microwave background – a faint glow left over from the Big Bang.
As the cosmic microwave background is a form of light it contains all the properties of light, including polarisation. The cosmic microwave was scattered by atoms and electrons and became polarised.
The scientists managed to find the waves after looking for a distinct pattern in the cosmic background.
“Our team hunted for a special type of polarization called ‘B-modes,’ which represents a twisting or ‘curl’ pattern in the polarised orientations of the ancient light,” said co-leader Jamie Bock (Caltech/JPL).
Cardiff University’s Professor Bangalore Sathyaprakash, a theoretical physicist who worked on the project, said: “This result is key to answering some of the biggest questions in cosmology.
“It provides insights into processes that took place in the early Universe, and just how violent the birth of the Universe was. It’s wonderful to see the realisation of the prediction that our esteemed colleague Leonid Grishchuk made back in 1975.”
The results have been produced by a team of scientists and engineers who have been using the BICEP2 telescope based at the South Pole.
John Kovac, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said: “Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today. A lot of work by a lot of people has led up to this point.”
“The South Pole is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground,” said Kovac. “It’s one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the Big Bang.”
The BICEP2 collaboration is funded by the National Science Foundation, US, and has involved work from University of California at San Diego, the University of British Columbia, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the University of Toronto, Cardiff University and Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique.
Images courtesy of Harvard/BICEP2.