Friday was Albert Einstein’s birthday, and today at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics it was announced that there is evidence to support his last untested prediction about the Theory of General Relativity. Time describes the theory as such:
“Gravity, the great physicist declared, was no longer to be seen as a force, but rather as the warping of ‘spacetime,’ an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts. The theory also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello.”
For the first time ever these “ripples,” or gravitational waves, were witnessed in the South Pole. According to a release from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which participated in the study along with researchers from CalTech, Stanford, Harvard and the University of Minnesota, scientists:
“[H]ave acquired the first direct evidence that gravitational waves rippled through our infant universe during an explosive period of growth called inflation. This is the strongest confirmation yet of cosmic inflation theories, which say the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times, in less than the blink of an eye.
The findings were made with the help of NASA-developed detector technology on the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole, in collaboration with the National Science Foundation.”
This discovery, if confirmed, would also provide proof for the Inflationary Universe theory, which was hypothesized in the 1980s. The theory suggested that after The Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light (at .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds).
Time spoke to Marc Kamionkowski, a theorist at Johns Hopkins University who wasn’t involved in the research. Kamionkowski was shocked to hear the news. “I had to ask if it was real,” he told Time. “To me, this is bigger than the Higgs boson.”
The discovery was made possible due to a telescope named Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2, or BICEP2. The technology was developed at JPL in Pasadena, Calif.
“Small, quantum fluctuations were amplified to enormous sizes by the inflationary expansion of the universe,” explained co-leader Jamie Bock of JPL and the California Institute of Technology. “We know this produces another type of waves called density waves, but we wanted to test if gravitational waves are also produced.” Images of what the waves look like can be seen here at NewScientist.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics project leader John Kovac and his colleagues witnessed gravitational waves that were not jiggling, but rather oscillating. According to a release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics:
“Since the cosmic microwave background is a form of light, it exhibits all the properties of light, including polarization. On Earth, sunlight is scattered by the atmosphere and becomes polarized, which is why polarized sunglasses help reduce glare. In space, the cosmic microwave background was scattered by atoms and electrons and became polarized too.”
The oscillation witnessed is a characteristic of polarized light called “B-mode” polarization, and it suggests that something was moving the radiation back and forth. NASA’s JPL explains, “These and future experiments not only help confirm that the universe inflated dramatically, but are providing theorists with the first clues about the exotic forces that drove space and time apart.”
Despite meticulous checking by the team, there is no way to be 100% certain of these results. The findings have to be verified, but according to Time, several research projects are already underway to test the results. Researchers are also already building BICEP3, which they hope will be operational by next summer. This discovery is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of learning about the expansion of the universe; it opens the door to new discovery and helps narrow down possible theories. If it is proven correct, Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department, calls it “worth a Nobel.”
h/t Time and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics