March 19, 2014
On March 17, the most important day for cosmology in over a decade, the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics made an announcement that swept even physicists off their feet. Scientists published the first pieces of evidence that a popular but untested theory called cosmic inflation is right. This has significant implications for the field of cosmology.
The results also highlight a deep connection between the force of gravitation and quantum mechanics. This has been the subject of one of the most enduring quests in physics.
Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, said the results were a “smoking gun for inflation,” at a news conference. Avi Loeb, a theoretical physicist from Harvard University, added that “the results also tell us when inflation took place and how powerful the process was.” Neither was involved in the project.
Cosmic inflation was first hypothesized by American physicist Alan Guth. He was trying to answer the question why distant parts of the universe were similar even though they couldn’t have shared a common history. In 1980, he proposed a radical solution. He theorized that 10-36 seconds after the Big Bang happened, all matter and radiation was uniformly packed into a volume the size of a proton.
In the next few instants, its volume increased by 1078 times – a period called the inflationary epoch. After this event, the universe was almost as big as a grapefruit, expanding to this day but at a slower pace. While this theory was poised to resolve many cosmological issues, it was difficult to prove. To get this far, scientists from the Centre used the BICEP2 telescope stationed at the South Pole.
BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) 2 studies some residual energy of the Big Bang called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). This is a field of microwave radiation that permeates the universe. Its temperature is about 3 Kelvin. The CMB consists of electric (E) and magnetic (B) fields, called modes.
Before proceeding further, consider this analogy. When sunlight strikes a smooth, non-metallic surface, like a lake, the particles of light start vibrating parallel to the lake’s surface, becoming polarized. This is what we see as glare. Similarly, the E-mode and B-mode of the CMB are also polarized in certain ways.
The E-mode is polarized because of interactions with scattered photons and electrons in the universe. It is the easier to detect than the B-mode, and was studied in great detail until 2012 by the Planck space telescope. The B-mode, on the other hand, can be polarized only under the effect of gravitational waves. These are waves of purely gravitational energy capable of stretching or squeezing the space-time continuum.
The inflationary epoch is thought to have set off gravitational waves rippling through the continuum, in the process polarizing the B-mode.
To find this, a team of scientists led by John Kovac from Harvard University used the BICEP2 telescope from 2010 to 2012. It was equipped with a lens of aperture 26 cm, and devices called bolometers to detect the power of the CMB section being studied.
The telescope’s camera is actually a jumble of electronics. “The circuit board included an antenna to focus and filter polarized light, a micro-machined detector that turns the radiation into heat, and a superconducting thermometer to measure this heat,” explained Jamie Bock, a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology and project co-leader.
It scanned an effective area of two to 10 times the width of the Moon. The signal denoting effects of gravitational waves on the B-mode was confirmed with a statistical significance of over 5σ, sufficient to claim evidence.
Prof. Kovac said in a statement, “Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today.”
Despite many physicists calling the BICEP2 results as the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli advised caution. “The first direct detection is not here yet,” he tweeted, alluding to the scientists only having found the waves’ signatures.
Scientists are also looking for the value of a parameter called r, which describes the level of impact that gravitational waves could have had on galaxy formation. That value has been found to be particularly high: 0.20 (+0.07 –0.05). This helps explain why galaxies formed so rapidly, how powerful inflation was and why the universe is so large.
Now, astrophysicists from other observatories around the world will try to replicate BICEP2’s results. Also, data from the Planck telescope on the B-mode is due in 2015.
It is notable that gravitational waves are a feature of theories of gravitation, and cosmic inflation is a feature of quantum mechanics. Thus, the BICEP2 results show that the two previously exclusive theories can be combined at a fundamental level. This throws open the door for theoretical physicists and string theorists to explore a unified theory of nature in new light.
Liam McAllister, a physicist from Cornell University, proclaimed, “In terms of impact on fundamental physics, particularly as a tool for testing ideas about quantum gravity, the detection of primordial gravitational waves is completely unprecedented.”