Five Sigma at Point Two

BICEP2 Apodized E-mode and B-mode Maps
Researchers, using a super powerful microwave telescope, the BICEP2 at the South Pole, detected signs of primordial gravitational waves in the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, the "observable afterglow of the Big Bang." These waves appear to be direct evidence of cosmic inflation, the terrific period of expansion of the universe that happened about 10-35 seconds (that's about 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds) after the Big Bang, or as Stanford professor of physics Chao-Lin Qou calls it, the "bang in the Big Bang." This period of expansion, according to inflation theory, created uniformity in the universe in every direction. This evidence of gravitational waves suggests "a deep connection between quantum mechanics and general relativity." Inflation theory was first conceived about 30 years ago.

This is an astounding find. If the BICEP2 results can be replicated and verified by others in additional experiments, we can be assured that we are one step closer to understanding the origins of our universe. The next step could come in another 30 years. Or in 100 years. We shall see.

But there is also a deeply profound and humbling human element to this new discovery. To be able to create a telescope that can help us see these gravitational waves, to apply what we know about the physical world and develop mathematical models that try to explain things that happened billions of years ago, and to be able to validate complex theories with concerted effort and evidence are all remarkable human achievements. This discovery is cause for celebration.

The video below, though an odd Publishers Clearing House kind of moment, captures the human spirit at its best. In it, Andrei Linde, one of the founders of "inflationary universe theory," gets the news that the theory is very likely right on the money. Note how his wife, Stanford physics professor Renata Kallosh, reacts to the news, how she gives professor Quo a hug, her eyes closed during the embrace. It's as if she and Linde had just won a million bucks. Remarkable.

Then the champagne comes, and the toast, and then the wonderful smiles, and then Linde's description of inflation theory as being beautiful. Apparent are his feelings of validation and joy. They have completed a 30-year long marathon. They're excited, exhausted, and incredibly happy. Linde's reaction, his contentedness, relief, and triumph left me in tears.

"If this is true," Linde says in the video, "this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms." Indeed. I too am left with an incredible sense of awe, not just about the science, but of human progress and achievement.

Congratulations Dr. Linde and Dr. Kallosh, and all the researchers involved in the BICEP2 collaboration. Here's to you all.

For further reading and viewing:

First Direct Evidence of Cosmic Inflation
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

BICEP2 2014 Results Release

BICEP2 Press Conference (Video)

What is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation?
By Erik M. Leitch at the University of Chicago
Published in Scientific American

A Scientific Breakthrough Lets Us See to the Beginning of Time
By Lawrence Krauss
The New Yorker

First Direct Evidence of Big Bang Inflation
By Camille Carlisle
Sky & Telescope

No comments: