According to astronomers’ theories, 14 billion years ago, the universe we inhabit burst into existence in an extraordinary event that initiated the Big Bang. In the first fleeting fraction of a second, the universe expanded exponentially, stretching far beyond the view of our best telescopes. Today (March 16, 2014), researchers from the BICEP2 collaboration at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the first direct evidence for this cosmic inflation.
Their data also represent the first images of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time, sometimes described as the “first tremors of the Big Bang.” Finally, the data confirm a deep connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity.
“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,” said John Kovac, leader of the BICEP2 collaboration.
These results came from observations by the BICEP2 telescope of the cosmic microwave background — a faint glow left over from the Big Bang. Tiny fluctuations in this afterglow provide clues to conditions in the early universe. For example, small differences in temperature across the sky show where parts of the universe were denser, eventually condensing into galaxies and galactic clusters.
Since the cosmic microwave background is a form of light, it exhibits all the properties of light, including polarization. On Earth, sunlight is scattered by the atmosphere and becomes polarized, which is why polarized sunglasses help reduce glare. In space, the cosmic microwave background was scattered by atoms and electrons and became polarized too.
“Our team hunted for a special type of polarization called ‘B-modes,’ which represents a twisting or ‘curl’ pattern in the polarized orientations of the ancient light,” said co-leader Jamie Bock of Caltech/JPL.
Gravitational waves squeeze space as they travel, and this squeezing produces a distinct pattern in the cosmic microwave background. Gravitational waves have a “handedness,” much like light waves, and can have left- and right-handed polarizations.
“The swirly B-mode pattern is a unique signature of gravitational waves because of their handedness. This is the first direct image of gravitational waves across the primordial sky,” said co-leader Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford/SLAC.
The team examined spatial scales on the sky spanning about one to five degrees (two to ten times the width of a full moon). To do this, they traveled to Earth’s South Pole to take advantage of its cold, dry, stable air.
“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.”
They were surprised to detect a B-mode polarization signal considerably stronger than many cosmologists expected. The team analyzed their data for more than three years in an effort to rule out any errors. They also considered whether dust in our galaxy could produce the observed pattern, but the data suggest this is highly unlikely.
“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said co-leader Clem Pryke of the University of Minnesota.
When asked to comment on the implications of this discovery, 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.”