Ripples From the Big Bang

Dennis Overbye in The New York Times:

UniverseWhen scientists jubilantly announced last week that a telescope at the South Pole had detected ripples in space from the very beginning of time, the reverberations went far beyond the potential validation of astronomers’ most cherished model of the Big Bang. It was the second time in less than two years that ideas thought to be radical just decades ago had been confirmed (at least so the optimists think) by experiment. The first was the discovery of the Higgs boson, associated with an energy field that gives mass to other particles, announced in July 2012; physicists have said they will be studying the Higgs for the next 20 years at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe and perhaps at successor machines, hoping for a clue that will lead them beyond the Standard Model, which has ruled physics for the last half-century. Now the South Pole telescope team, led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has presented physicists with another clue from what the Russian cosmologist Yakov B. Zeldovich once called the poor man’s particle accelerator — the universe itself.

The ripples detected by the telescope, Bicep2, were faint spiral patterns from the polarization of microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. They are relics from when energies were a trillion times greater than the Large Hadron Collider can produce. These gravitational waves are the long-sought markers for a theory called inflation, the force that put the bang in the Big Bang: an antigravitational swelling that began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking. Scientists have long incorporated inflation into their standard model of the cosmos, but as with the existence of the Higgs, proving it had long been just a pipe dream. Astronomers say they expect to be studying the gravitational waves from mountaintops, balloons and perhaps satellites for the next 20 years, hoping to gain insight into mysteries like dark matter and dark energy.

More here.