Scientists have heralded a “whole new era” in physics with the detection of “primordial gravitational waves” – the first tremors of the big bang.
The minuscule ripples in space-time are the last prediction of Albert Einstein‘s 1916 general theory of relativity to be verified. Until now, there has only been circumstantial evidence of their existence. The discovery also provides a deep connection between general relativity and quantum mechanics, another central pillar of physics.
“This is a genuine breakthrough,” says Andrew Pontzen, a cosmologist from University College London who was not involved in the work. “It represents a whole new era in cosmology and physics as well.” If the discovery is confirmed, it will almost certainly lead to a Nobel Prize.
The detection, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, was announced on Monday at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and comes from the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2 (Bicep2) experiment – a telescope at the South Pole.
The detection also provides the first direct evidence for a long-held hypothesis called inflation. This states that a fraction of a second after the big bang, the universe was driven to expand hugely. Without this sudden growth spurt, the gravitational waves would not have been amplified enough to be visible.
“Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today. A lot of work by a lot of people has led up to this point,” said John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who leads the BICEP2 collaboration.
The primordial gravitational waves were visible because they created a twisting pattern called polarisation in light from the big bang. Polarisation is the direction in which a light wave oscillates. It is invisible to human eyes, which only register brightness and colour. Sunglasses made from polaroid sheets work by blocking out all light waves except those with a specific polarisation.
Light from the big bang has been turned into microwaves by its passage across space. These microwaves were discovered in 1964 and are known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. Bicep2 was designed to measure their polarisation…. see more
source: Guardian UK