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Ripples In Space Could Point To The Universe's Beginnings

Mar 18, 2014
Originally published on March 18, 2014 5:24 am
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Physicists claimed the potentially exciting discovery yesterday: a faint signal from moments after the universe began. If confirmed, and there are doubters, that signal could revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.

But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In the beginning, here's what most researchers think happened. In the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, space expanded like a balloon.

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BRUMFIEL: From a subatomic size to the size of everything we can observe in our Universe. That quick expansion made gravitational waves: ripples in the fabric of space itself, but no one has ever seen them. Now a telescope at the South Pole says it has a signal.

CLEM PRYKE: We are convinced, on the basis of all of the studies we've done, that the signal is real.

BRUMFIEL: Clem Pryke is a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who works on the telescope called BICEP2.

PRYKE: By far, the most reasonable interpretation of such a signal is that it is gravity waves. And those gravity waves come from a tiny, tiny fraction of a second after the beginning.

BRUMFIEL: The gravity waves could help solve a big problem: no one knows how to combine our theory of very small things, called quantum mechanics, with our theory of big things, gravity. The period of rapid expansion happened at a time when the universe was small. It obeyed quantum mechanics. But the gravitational waves it produced obey the rules of gravity - rules that usually only apply to big things like stars and galaxies.

So its possible studying these gravity waves could help bring both theories into one happy theory of all things. That is, if it's right.

PAUL STEINHARDT: I think one should have patience with these kinds of things.

BRUMFIEL: Paul Steinhardt is a theorist at Princeton. He says other scientists haven't had a close look at this new result yet.

STEINHARDT: I think one should wait for both the theoretical community and the experimental community to look over what they've presented and see what emerges.

BRUMFIEL: Other experiments are hot on the heels of the announcement. So it won't be long before scientists find out whether their expanding model of the early universe...

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BRUMFIEL: ...is just a lot of hot air.

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BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.