In a landmark achievement, scientists say they have seen ripples in the weave of the universe, which would provide the first direct evidence that the universe underwent a massive and incomprehensibly fast growth spurt in its earliest infancy.
If the new findings are confirmed, they could very well earn their discoverers the Nobel Prize, says astrophysicist Xavier Siemens of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Researchers have sought to detect these ripples, known as gravitational waves, for years, and more than a dozen telescopes have been looking for them. Though Einstein predicted gravitational waves, he thought they might not be detectable, and their existence was in some doubt.
Outside scientists' early reaction included some skepticism but also amazement and admiration.
The signs in the data pointing to gravitational waves are "extraordinarily strong, huge huge news … wow," tweeted Dominique Aubert, an astronomer at the University of Strasbourg in France.
The new research provides a glimpse of the universe just after the Big Bang, when it was an infinitesimal fraction of a second old and smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. To explain how the universe evolved from that state to the form it has today, scientists have posited an event just after the Big Bang called "inflation," when space expanded violently and exponentially in the merest sliver of a second.That process should have created gravitational waves, which squeeze and deform space. That process in turn leaves a stamp on the earliest light in the universe, which even now pervades the cosmos as a faint glow invisible to the naked eye called the cosmic microwave background. Scientists have long realized that a close study of those cosmic microwaves should turn up evidence for gravitational waves, if such waves exist.
But finding evidence is not as simple as aiming a telescope at the sky. Water in the atmosphere blocks microwaves, so the best place on Earth to study cosmic microwaves is the South Pole, where the super-dry, clear air offers a unique window onto the microwave background in the heavens. The South Pole boasts several instruments built by competing scientists, all working to locate gravitational waves.
The prize was won at last by the BICEP2 telescope, a collaboration among scientists from across the United States. The telescope detected a telltale "curl" in the ancient microwaves – a pattern that is the fingerprint of gravitational waves. The finding should boost the fortunes of the inflation theory, which some astrophysicists have dismissed as inadequate, as long as the data are borne out. The scientists behind the new results say their data, which they are submitting to a scientific journal now, are strong enough to hold up to scrutiny.
"This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack," said one of the researchers, co-leader Clem Pryke of the University of Minnesota in a statement, "but instead we found a crowbar."