Astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced Monday that they finally found evidence that the universe underwent rapid expansion a fraction of a second after the Big Bang. They’ve seen, for the first time, the gravitational waves in the fabric of space-time that the almost incomprehensibly fast inflation would have left in its wake roughly 13.8 billion years ago.
The waves were detected by a team of astronomers, led by John M. Kovac, after several years of telescope observation at the South Pole. The experiment, known as BICEP2, stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization.
In 1983, Stanford physics professor Andrei Linde was the first to describe the “chaotic inflation” theory. In a video released today, Chao-Lin Kuo, a member of the BICEP team, shows up at Linde’s house unannounced. Holding a bottle of champagne, Kuo tells Linde about the team’s finding.
“Five sigma,” Kuo says several times, which is a measure of how confident scientists are that their results are correct. A 5 sigma confidence level indicates that there is a one in 3.5 million chance that the result occurred by chance and is considered the gold standard of significance.
This is very good news for the cosmic inflation theory. “If this is true, this is a moment of understanding of nature of such a magnitude that it just overwhelms,” Linde says, his voice choked with emotion. “Thank you so much for doing it.”
A simple animated explanation from the journal Nature, below, helps us lay people get a handle on the results. If you care to have your mind blown further, read astronomer Phil Plait’s explanation of just how fast the universe may have expanded after the Big Bang.