The Universe Expanded Exponentially After the Big Bang

It's being called one of the most important discoveries of the last several decades.

The BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole. Image: Keith Vanderline

Scientists have long thought that, after the Big Bang, the universe expanded exponentially in a process known as “inflation.” Today, researchers have confirmed that theory with the first ever detection of gravitational waves occurring immediately following the creation of the universe.

“I have always thought of inflation as the ‘bang,’ of the “Big Bang,” said Chao-Lin Kuo, a Stanford University professor who worked with the team, largely made up of researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “If you look at gravitational waves, you can use them to see what happens at the very first beginnings of [the universe]. What we’ve found reveals the inflation process.”

It's not every day you can create an infographic called "The History of the Universe." This shows the graviational waves emanating from the Big Bang and eventually observed about 40,000 years after the creation of the universe. Image: Harvard University

The discovery has largely been lauded as one of the most important findings ever in astrophysics and has already been called a frontrunner for a Nobel Prize. The finding confirms much of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and, if it holds up, could be one of the strongest pieces of evidence supporting the Big Bang theory. The waves detected are believed to be from an instant after the Big Bang. It is the first time gravitational waves—known as "ripples in the curvature of space-time" and theorized by Einstein—have ever been observed.

“It’s not every day you wake up and learn something that happened one trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the beginning of the universe,” said Mark Kamionkowski, an astrophysicist with Johns Hopkins University who was not involved with the Harvard team. “This is not something that’s just a home run but a grand slam. It’s the smoking gun for inflation … this is as extraordinary as it gets.”

The team used a microwave telescope known as BICEP2, stationed at the South Pole, to detect the signal, known as a “B-mode polarization signal.” The team originally started looking in 1997 and finally found it three years ago—they’ve spent the time since confirming and analyzing their findings to make sure they weren’t getting distortion from local galactic sources. The team says they observed the waves in a place that suggest they were from about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, but that the evidence suggests they were formed, essentially, the instant the universe was created.

“It’s not foreground emissions from our galaxy. We’re convinced that the signal is real, it’s coming from the sky and it’s coming from about 400,000 years after the beginning point,” said Clem Pryke, one of the researchers. “The most reasonable interpretation of the signal is that it is gravity waves written in the pattern from the inflation at a tiny, tiny fraction of a second after the beginning.”