Evidence spotted for universe's early growth spurt
by Malcolm Ritter, AP Science Writer
March 17, 2014 04:00 PM | 619 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this 2007 photo provided by Steffen Richter, the sun sets behind the BICEP2 telescope, foreground, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. In the faint glowing remains of the Big Bang, scientists found "smoking gun" evidence that the universe began with a split-second of astonishingly rapid growth from a seed far smaller than an atom. To find a pattern of polarization in the faint light left over from the Big Bang, astronomers scanned about 2 percent of the sky for three years with the BICEP2 at the south pole, chosen for its very dry air to aid in the observations, said the leader of the collaboration, John Kovac of Harvard. (AP Photo/Steffen Richter)
In this 2007 photo provided by Steffen Richter, the sun sets behind the BICEP2 telescope, foreground, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. In the faint glowing remains of the Big Bang, scientists found "smoking gun" evidence that the universe began with a split-second of astonishingly rapid growth from a seed far smaller than an atom. To find a pattern of polarization in the faint light left over from the Big Bang, astronomers scanned about 2 percent of the sky for three years with the BICEP2 at the south pole, chosen for its very dry air to aid in the observations, said the leader of the collaboration, John Kovac of Harvard. (AP Photo/Steffen Richter)
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This image provided by the BICEP2 Collaboration shows slight temperature fluctuations, indicated by variations in color, of the cosmic microwave background of a small patch of sky and the orientation of its polarization, shown as short black lines. Researchers say since the cosmic microwave background is a form of light, it exhibits all the properties of light, including polarization. The changes in a particular type of polarization, indicated here, are theorized to be caused by gravitational waves. These waves are signals of an extremely rapid inflation of the universe in its first moments. (AP Photo/BICEP2 Collaboration)
This image provided by the BICEP2 Collaboration shows slight temperature fluctuations, indicated by variations in color, of the cosmic microwave background of a small patch of sky and the orientation of its polarization, shown as short black lines. Researchers say since the cosmic microwave background is a form of light, it exhibits all the properties of light, including polarization. The changes in a particular type of polarization, indicated here, are theorized to be caused by gravitational waves. These waves are signals of an extremely rapid inflation of the universe in its first moments. (AP Photo/BICEP2 Collaboration)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Researchers say they have spotted evidence that a split-second after the Big Bang, the newly formed universe ballooned out at a pace so astonishing that it left behind ripples in the fabric of the cosmos.

If confirmed, experts said, the discovery would be a major advance in the understanding of the early universe. Although many scientists already believed that an initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, they have long sought the evidence cited in the new study.

Researchers reported Monday that they found it by peering into the faint light that remains from the Big Bang of nearly 14 billion years ago.

The discovery "gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning," when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not involved in the work.

"It's just amazing," he said. "You can see back to the beginning of time."

Marc Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist at Johns Hopkins University who didn't participate in the research, said the finding is "not just a home run. It's a grand slam."

He and other experts said the results must be confirmed by other observations, a standard caveat in science.

Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars. The universe has continued to spread out.

Krauss said he thinks the new results could rank among the greatest discoveries in astrophysics over the last 25 years, such as the Nobel prize-winning discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating.

The results were announced by a collaboration that included researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The team plans to submit its results to a scientific journal this week, said its leader, John Kovac of Harvard.

Astronomers scanned about 2 percent of the sky for three years with a telescope at the South Pole, where the air is exceptionally dry.

They were looking for a specific pattern in light waves within the faint microwave glow left over from the Big Bang. The pattern has long been considered evidence of rapid growth, known as inflation. Kovac called it "the smoking-gun signature of inflation."

The reported detection suggests that "inflation has sent us a telegram," Kamionkowski said.

The researchers say the light-wave pattern was caused by gravitational waves, which are ripples in space and time. If verified, the new work would be the first detection of such waves from the birth of the universe, which have been called the first tremors of the Big Bang.

Arizona State's Krauss cautioned that the light-wave pattern might not be a sign of inflation, although he stressed that it's "extremely likely" that it is. It's "our best hope" for a direct test of whether the rapid growth spurt happened, he said.

Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a creator of the idea of inflation, said the finding already suggests that some ideas about the rapid expansion of the universe can be ruled out.

It had not been clear whether the light-wave pattern would be detectable even if inflation really happened, he said, but luckily "nature is cooperating with us, laying out its cards in a way that we can see them."

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Malcolm Ritter can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/malcolmritter .



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