On March 17th, 2014, astrophysicists announced that they may have found the signal left in the sky by the super-rapid expansion that is known as “inflation.” Unfortunately, it seems that these signals weren’t conclusively proven. Interference from dust muddied the results; however, testing is set to begin again soon, and at that point, we may find the evidence that we are looking for.
This is important because Cosmic inflation is one of the most fundamental and important theories in the sciences. It allows us to understand the early universe and why the cosmos appears the way that it does today. In essence, the theory is used to describe a period of rapid expansion that occurred shortly after the Big Bang (notably, it states that this expansion occurred at a speed that was much faster than the speed of light).
The theory of inflation is necessary in order for scientists to be able to explain many things — the large-scale structure of the cosmos (i.e., why it is shaped the way it is and why matter is scattered in the patterns that we observe); why the universe appears homogeneous across vast distances; and it explains, and is responsible for, the even distribution of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB).
The findings were made by the BICEP2 telescope at the South Pole utilizing data of the cosmic microwave background radiation (the faint glow left over from the Big Bang). Inflation depends on a specific prediction: That it would be associated with waves of gravitational energy. Ultimately, these tiny waves, or ripples in the fabric of space, would have left their mark on the CMB. And it’s these tiny waves that the scientists recently observed, tiny fluctuations in the CMB afterglow.
This awesome comic by PhD Comics explains the significance of this find and, if it is ever confirmed, what it means about our ability to understand the start of our universe.