A speck in the cosmos

Wed, Mar 19, 2014, 01:01

There is a strange symmetry to the two greatest physics discoveries of our age – great scientists like Albert Einstein have seen the quest for symmetry in the laws of nature as central to their inquiries , and it seems it is mirrored in the scope and pace of scientific discovery itself. At the largest scale in terms of distance and time, the weekend announcement of the discovery of ripples of gravitational energy 13.8 billion years old, echoes of the big bang at the universe’s birth, is likely provide the sort of fundamental insights into the nature and origins of matter that, at the microscopic level, the identification of the Higgs boson did two years ago. Both dramatic confirmations of until-then theoretical models herald new eras of fruitful cosmological and subatomic research and a leap in our understanding.

Reaching back to the first moment of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics has reported detecting ripples in the fabric of space-time that are believed to be the signature of a universe being torn violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.

What the experiment – BICEP (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation) – has seen confirms predictions of unobserved gravitational waves whose existence Einstein predicted back in 1916 in his general theory of relativity and which physicist Alan Guth in 1979 theorised would provide evidence to support the theory of the “inflation” of the universe, its massively rapid expansion in the first micro-moments of existence.

Confirming inflation will provide crucial insights into the operation of forces well beyond anything we can reproduce and into gravity itself. And it seems to confirm that the 14 billion light-year expanse of our universe, with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only a speck in the unfathomable extent of a larger cosmos, possibly just one of many.

Humility would be an appropriate response.