WASHINGTON — Scientists say they have discovered evidence of the “dynamite” that caused the Big Bang.
If confirmed, experts say it will be one of the most important fundamental discoveries in the history of science.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics led the group, working at a radio telescope at the South Pole, where the air is dry and there is little human interference.
They examined the background radiation of the universe, the last traces of energy from the Big Bang.
The new research by provides the first solid evidence that the universe went through an extraordinary growth spurt in its first brief moments of being, a period called inflation.
This unfathomably rapid rate of growth left ripples in the fabric of space -- gravitational waves that Albert Einstein predicted, but that have never been detected until now.
The force driving that exponential expansion is unknown, but experts say this new evidence that it exists offers a long-sought link between gravity, which acts on everything we can see, and quantum mechanics, which governs the subatomic realm.
“I think this is going to go down, if it stands the test of time, as one of the greatest discoveries in the entire history of science,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Max Tegmark, who was not involved in the research, “and I really don’t say that lightly.”
The researchers found extremely subtle irregularities in the universe’s background radiation. The variations followed a curling, twisting pattern that they say marks the passage of gravitational waves.
“Detecting this signal is one of the most important goals in cosmology today,” team leader John Kovac at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics said in a statement.
Although much of current astrophysics rests on the assumption that inflation happened, the evidence has been lacking.
And it wasn’t clear that the signal would be detectable nearly 14 billion years after the fact, added University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner. “Looking for the gravity waves from inflation was called, by many, folly or chasing a wild goose,” he said.
Turner was not a member of the research team. He said the discovery of gravity waves means scientists can study the force behind inflation, which, he said, “might well have been the dynamite behind the Big Bang.”
“One of the reasons why this discovery is exciting is because inflation does require that there’s some new fundamental physics beyond the four forces we know about,” said Johns Hopkins University astronomer Marc Kamionkowski, who was also not involved with the research.
He said the new findings fit nicely with theories that unify all of the forces.
The new evidence has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Experts who have seen the research said it was compelling, but that other scientists will need to confirm it.
Kamionkowski said that if it does stand up to scrutiny, it opens up an exciting new area of research.
“It’s as if someone was around at the time of inflation and sent us a telegram encoded in gravitational waves, which then got transcribed on the sky,” he said. “In the forthcoming years, what I’m hoping will happen is, we’ll actually be able to read what this telegram is telling us.”