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First Evidence for Primordial Ripples in Space

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Today’s announcement from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, about the detection of “gravitational waves” emanating from the universe’s first moments, is tremendously exciting, but a little tough for the layman to grasp. We caught up with Brian Greene, in Vancouver to give a TED talk on 3/18, and asked him to break it down for us.

“The dominant scientific approach to cosmology, called the ‘inflationary theory,’ predicts that that just after the birth of the universe, space experienced a tremendous burst of expansion, causing it to swell from far smaller than the size of an atom to perhaps even farther than we can now see with our most powerful telescopes, all within a minuscule fraction of a second. Tiny variations in the original space would have been stretched out in the expansion—and much as a pulled piece of spandex reveals the pattern of its weave, these stretched “quantum jitters” would be imprinted on the residual heat from the universe’s earliest moments and would be detectable as a pattern of subtle temperature variations in the night sky. We’ve been finding and mapping these variations—a specific pattern of hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background radiation — with ever-greater precision since the early 1990s, a triumph of modern cosmology.

Today, researchers at Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, leading a team of researchers using a facility at the South Pole, say they’ve found, for the first time, a long-predicted second kind of fluctuation: ripples in the fabric of space itself, set down in the universe’s earliest moments. Believed also to be generated by quantum processes, these spatial vibrations are inferred from a delicate twist they impart to the cosmic background radiation.

“If the results stand, they are a landmark discovery. They provide our first look into energy scales that are perhaps a million times larger than that of the Large Hadron Collider, and will greatly sharpen our theoretical understanding of events that happened perhaps a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. The results also affirm, once again, the astounding power of mathematical analysis to lead the way into the most remote corners of creation.”

Image: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

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