The quest to understand our origins is an innate part of our psyche as humans. You can see evidence of this stretching as far back as we kept records as our ancestors grappled with the idea of where they originated from, whether it was a (relatively) simple question of lineage or the larger question of where we, and all that we know of, came from. Modern science has made incredible leaps in this area, expanding our understanding to show that we live in a universe that is old beyond any of our wildest guesses and is home to more wonders than any could have dreamed of. Still the ultimate question, of where everything began, still puzzles us although as of today we’ve begun to lay down the first few pieces in this puzzle and they’re magnificent.
You’re likely familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, the theorized event that gave birth to our universe and marked the beginning of time. However the specifics of what happened during that time are the subject of intense debate among the scientific community and there are many theories that model what may have happened. One of the most popular theories is that during the Big Bang the universe underwent a period of massive inflation in the tiny fractions of a second after it began, expanding faster than the speed of light. There was a lot of indirect evidence to support this (like the fact that our universe is still expanding) but direct proof of this occurring had been elusive.
That was until the telescope picture above, called BICEP-2, caught a picture of something that could only exist if that theory was correct.
Our universe still has remnants of the Big Bang hanging around in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It’s a kind of radiation that’s pretty much uniform not matter which direction you look into, something which is pretty peculiar when you consider just how wide and varied everything else we can observe is. BICEP-2 was searching for something in particular though, a pattern in this radiation that could only have happened should the early universe undergone a period of rapid inflation. The technical term for this is primordial B-mode polarization and was widely believed to have a value of below 0.11 based on previous maps of the CMB. BICEP-2 on the other hand has come in at a 5 sigma confidence level (1 in 3.5 million chance of being random, the gold standard for confirmation in this field of physics) as 0.2, excluding many models and theories that were based on that assumption. It opens up a whole new world of physics and is the first direct proof of the inflationary model.
To understand just how huge of an impact this is going to have on the world of physics you just have to see the reaction of Andrei Linde, one of the first to propose such a model, and his wife Renata Kallosh (also a well renowned theoretical physicist) reacting to the news:
It’s one thing to find proof of something and it’s another thing entirely to show something can not be. This discovery is powerful not because it shows us that a certain model is correct more it has shown us that the widely held belief was in fact wrong and we need to start heading in another direction. Confirmation of this shouldn’t be far off (indeed the team behind the discovery held onto the results for a year to make sure) and with that we’ll enter into a new world scientific debate, one that was so much more informed than before.