by Matthew Cobb
For the last few days, Tw*tter has been abuzz with speculation about a press conference around a ‘major discovery’ that’s being held today at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, at noon US Eastern Standard Time (16:00 GMT/UTC). There will be a live-stream of the presser from 11:55 am EST/15:55 (as of now, the site has crashed…). If you can understand it, you can get all the raw data here.
It seems most likely that the researchers will announce that the BICEP2 experiment – based in Antarctica – has detected primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background. These would have been produced just after the Big Bang – the ‘echo’ of that event that set in motion everything that is or ever will be. And when they say ‘just after’, that’s exactly what the cosmologists and astronomers mean, for this would be a sign of the inflationary phase that followed the Big Bang, at around 10-34 seconds. That is, 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after… The nature of this incredibly faint signal will tell us something about this key phase in the history of the universe.
I won’t pretend I understand all the cosmology (and I don’t feel bad about that – what do the cosmologists know about maggots?) but I know it’s exciting. If you want to know more, I recommend reading The Guardian’s explanation from last Friday when they blew the story wide open, or if you are more technically-inclined, this post by the Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll.
If—like me—you’re going to be glued to the press conference, and in particular if you’re in a group that’s watching, liven up an already exciting event by printing out these handy bingo cards, replete with all the expected clichés…
Please feel free to pitch in below, particularly if you have expert knowledge in this field. [JAC: I can’t pretend to understand the significance of this, either, even though I’ve read the relevant posts, so reader feedback would be appreciated, especially to distinguish this new finding from the older, Nobel-recognized discovery of the microwave radiation that also echoed the Big Bang.]
[UPDATE: Stanford has just posted this great video, in which Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo of the BICEP2 experiment popped round earlier on today to see Professor Andrei Linde, one of the scientists who developed much of the theory behind inflation, to tell him he was right. His response – and that of his wife – is charming. (The ’5 sigma’ they are talking about is the significance level of the results, which is amazingly high because the data are so clear. As one of the BICEP2 researchers said during the press conference – ‘we were looking for a needle in a haystack; we found a crowbar’.)
JAC: I’ve posted a picture, noted by reader Kevin in the comments, of the timeline of the evolution of the universe, a NASA creation taken from Wikipedia: