By Iain Thomson, 17 Mar 2014
Pics A team of astrophysicists has announced a sighting of gravitational waves – formed in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the universe as we know it blinked into existence.
The breakthrough discovery throws enormous weight behind the famous Big Bang theory. The boffins must be expecting a call from the Nobel Prize panel in Sweden.
Surf the light fantastic ... Gravitational waves from inflation create distinctive patterns in the cosmic microwave background, observed by the team's equipment
"This is something that's not just a home run, but a grand slam," said Marc Kamionkowski, professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, in Maryland, US, today. He was speaking at a press conference to announce his team's results: "It's the smoking gun for [the universe's] inflation and it's the first detection of gravitational waves."
The waves, first predicted by Albert Einstein 99 years ago as a key tenet of his theory of General Relativity, are formed in the cosmic microwave background when massive objects like stars and black holes interact.
The biggest gravitational wave, now observed, was formed 13.8 billion years ago as the universe suddenly snapped into being – a smoking gun for the Big Bang, the cosmic birth of reality as we know it.
The team's work also supports the theory that in the instant after that moment, the expansion of space briefly exceeded the speed of light – the aforementioned inflation – and this caused ripples in the first light energy to exist. The inflationary theory of creation helps explain why we have detected temperature differences across the universe.
The signal indicating the presence of gravitational waves is much stronger than expected, too. The boffins' evidence and papers on the discovery can be found here.
“This has been like looking for a needle in a haystack, but instead we found a crowbar,” said co-leader Clem Pryke, the British-born associate professor at the University of Minnesota.