Scientists detect ripples from dawn of time

Earth’s edge: The Bicep 2 telescope at the centre of the breakthrough discovery.

An international team of researchers has announced a dramatic discovery: evidence, after a long search, of how the universe came into being. Is it a genuine breakthrough or simply hot air?

It has been described as ‘the greatest discovery of the century’, marking a ‘whole new era’ of physics, and a significant leap towards ‘a theory of everything’. On Monday, astrophysicists announced they had confirmed the existence of primordial gravitational waves, the first tremors of the Big Bang: the ‘cosmic birthmark’.

Using a specially designed telescope at the South Pole called Bicep 2, they detected light created 13.8 billion years ago, when in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, nothingness was replaced by all the matter that now exists in the universe. If the discovery is confirmed, it will be as important to physics as that of the Higgs boson particle two years ago.

The Big Bang theory was first proposed in 1927. But in the 1970s, astronomers realised it only made sense if the Big Bang had been immediately followed by a rapid enlargement of the universe from a pea-sized object to its current extent, a process known as ‘inflation’.

In the same decade, cosmologists theorised that the Big Bang must have generated primordial gravitational waves, ripples of energy that cross the universe. Astrophysicists began searching for signs of them in cosmic microwave radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang which fills the entire cosmos.

They theorised that primordial gravitational waves would affect the light of cosmic microwave radiation, subtly twisting it into spiral-like formations. But they also knew that they would only see them if they had been amplified by inflation. If the waves could be detected, it would prove inflation had happened.

And now astrophysicists believe Bicep 2 has finally found this vital clue for the cosmic puzzle.

Further research may help scientists uncover more of what happened in the Big Bang and immediately after. Until now, the two leading theories in modern physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics, have proved incompatible, but many believe that this discovery will bring them together in one grand theory of everything.

Banging on about nothing

The Higgs boson particle, water on Mars, pre-human ancestors; some say that science is constantly throwing up new discoveries which are then hailed as revolutionary breakthroughs, but for most of us, they change nothing. We are continually told we have found breakthrough answers, but then all we get are more questions. Is this latest discovery any different?

Yet many reply that science is not about closing doors of scientific enquiry, but opening new ones. We have learned something of the very origins of our universe and this should inspire us to become even more inquisitive. In trying to understand everything, perhaps a good scientist only learns how little we really know.

You Decide

  1. Is science more about discovering the answers or finding the right questions?
  2. Do the public care enough about scientific discoveries?

Activities

  1. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, list and explain eight facts about the Big Bang.
  2. Design an infographic explaining the discovery of the primordial gravitational wave.

Some People Say...

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.’Carl Sagan”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care what happened billions of years ago?
Even if the Big Bang doesn’t interest you, physicists believe this may help to explain how relativity and quantum physics work together. The former deals with vast forces in space and the latter what happens at the level of elementary particles, atoms and molecules. If the two can be reconciled, there would be a ‘theory of everything’ which would explain all physical activity in the universe.
Is this the most important discovery of all time?
It is very difficult to say; while nowhere near as complicated, it could easily be argued that fire was mankind’s most important discovery. However, for forty years thousands of scientists have been trying to find evidence of primordial gravitational waves, so their discovery is very exciting.

Word Watch

Bicep 2
An acronym for ‘Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization’. The telescope is in the South Pole because it is one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth.
Higgs boson
For forty years, scientists had been looking for evidence of the Higgs boson, or ‘God’ particle. It is thought to be a key to understanding why there is a diversity of matter in the universe.
Inflation
In Physics, this term is nothing to do with money! Here it means the rapid expansion from nothing to everything during the Big Bang.
Waves
Gravitational waves were first predicted by Einstein in 1916 as part of his theory of relativity and this latest finding finally proves him correct. However, scientists only proposed that the Big Bang may have generated gravitational waves in the 1970s. These are referred to as ‘primordial’ gravitational waves.
General relativity
This 1916 theory of Einstein’s deals with the relation between the vast forces of the universe, gravity, time and space.
Quantum mechanics
This concerns the study of physics at a subatomic level. The laws of relativity do not apply on this scale as they do to larger objects. The reason why has been one of the biggest mysteries in physics.

Subjects

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