The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background).
The sun sets behind BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background).
The universe expanded so fast in its first moments of existence that it left ripples in the fabric of space-time.

Or maybe it didn’t.

In a study that could explain what put the “bang” in the Big Bang, researchers say they have detected the remnants of gravitational waves that fluttered through the universe in an infinitesimally brief period after the Big Bang.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of those waves in his theory of general relativity. If they exist, they would move scientists closer to a unified theory encompassing all the fundamental forces of the universe, from gravity to quantum physics.

When the results were first announced in March, experts said they were likely Nobel Prize-worthy if they held up to scrutiny.

Peer review

They had not, however, gone through the customary peer review process before publication in a scientific journal. When outside experts looked at the data, they suggested that interstellar dust could account for the findings.

“It’s an extraordinary result. It requires extraordinary scrutiny,” said Johns Hopkins University astronomer Marc Kamionkowski, who was not involved in the study.

The findings in question are now published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

Working at a radio telescope at the South Pole, the researchers describe a twisting pattern in the background radiation of the universe. That radiation is the energy left over from the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

The twisting pattern is evidence of gravitational waves, the authors say, and they contend that the signal is likely too strong to be dust alone.

Other researchers are following up on the results with different instruments.

“We’ll have to wait six months, maybe a couple of years, until we have additional data,” Kamionkowski said. “If what they’re seeing really is gravitational waves, whatever uncertainty we have now should decay away.”

“This is the way science works,” he added. “Things are not true because somebody claims that they’re true. Things are true because different people make independent measurements and independently arrive at similar conclusions.”

And that is still a ways off, he said.