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Gravitational waves discovery: 'We have a first

tantalising glimpse of the cosmic birth pangs'

Ian Sample explains the importance of the discovery of primordial gravitational waves,
dating back to the big bang, while eminent physicists and astronomers react to the news
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o Ian Sample
o The Observer, Saturday 22 March 2014 22.27 GMT
o Jump to comments (276)

The Dark Sector Lab, near the South Pole, is home to the Bicep2 telescope (left) and the South Pole telescope
(right). Photograph: Steffen Richter/Steffen Richter /
The sighting came from a small telescope on the roof of a laboratory sat on
the ice sheet three quarters of a mile from the geographic South Pole. First
came the rumours. But then researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Centre for Astrophysics went public. Their telescope had spotted indirect
evidence of gravitational waves, or ripples in space-time, from the earliest
moments of the universe.
The scientists have not yet published their work, and no other team has
confirmed the finding. Yet even without these mainstays of scientific
rigour, excitement has swept through the community and into the world
beyond. If confirmed, the observation will rank among the greatest scientific
discoveries of the past 20 years. A Nobel prize is all but guaranteed.
Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves in his 1916 theory of general
relativity. His equations married space and time, and showed how the
product, space-time, was warped by matter and energy. The warping of
space-time gives rise to the force of gravity.
Gravitational waves are tremors in space-time caused by intense
gravitational forces. The Harvard team found evidence for primordial
gravitational waves those set in motion during the first trillionth of a
second of the universe.
Primordial gravitational waves are seen as the smoking gun for a theory
called cosmic inflation. Conceived in its original form more than 30 years
ago by Alan Guth at MIT, inflation says that the early universe experienced
a terrific burst of expansion. The growth spurt lasted a mere fraction of
second, but smoothed out irregularities in space, and made the cosmos
look almost the same in every direction.
The violent expansion had another effect too. It amplified primordial
gravitational waves, making them large enough for researchers to detect.
Without inflation, the effects of these ripples in space-time would be too
minuscule for today's technology to spot.
Telescopes cannot see gravity, but they can see the effects of gravity.
What the Harvard team spotted was the telltale signature that primordial
gravitational waves imprinted on the faint light left over from the big bang.
This ancient afterglow fills the universe, and is known as the cosmic
microwave background.
Because gravitational waves squeeze space as they propagate, they make
some patches slightly warmer than others. These warm spots polarise light
waves that pass through, meaning the light waves vibrate in one direction
more than others. In this case, the vibrations of light waves from the big
bang are twisted, producing the distinctive pattern detected by Harvard's
Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation telescope
Photograph: The
BICEP2 Collaboration/PA
Paul Davies, physicist
When I was a student in London in the late 1960s I attended a lecture on
the early universe. The professor told us that the broad chemical make-up
of the universe could be explained in terms of nuclear reactions that
occurred in the first three minutes following the big bang. Everyone in
the audience burst out laughing. It seemed utterly preposterous to claim
that basic physics could be applied to the first few minutes of cosmic
existence. What a difference a generation makes!
Today we think nothing of using the first split-second of the universe as a
testing ground for fundamental physics. Yet I am still astonished that such
a simple idea as inflation can account so well for the main features of the
universe, and that we can push back our understanding of the cosmic birth
to within a whisker of its murky beginnings.
By unveiling the role of gravitational waves in the primeval maelstrom,
these results provide us with the first tantalising glimpse of the cosmic birth
pangs through an entirely new window on the universe. Gravitational wave
astronomy has long been a dream for cosmologists. We now know these
waves are out there, and encode priceless cosmic information unavailable
to optical, radio or any other form of electromagnetic astronomy. Expect a
boost for the decades-old programme of perfecting Earth-based
gravitational wave detectors.
Maybe in another generation we will be able to answer even more basic
questions about the universe, such as whether the big bang was the
ultimate origin of all physical existence, including space and time, or
whether our universe, vast though it may be, is but an infinitesimal
fragment of a stupendously larger ensemble of universes with no beginning
or end.
Martin Rees, astronomer royal
This is indeed an exciting result. It suggests that we really can infer what
happened at 10
seconds when the universe was squeezed smaller
than a tennis ball. And the polarisation is big enough that the ESA Planck
spacecraft will have it in the all-sky database that they're analysing and
should be able to check it.
It is not a direct detection of gravitational waves (in the sense of measuring
a "ripple" in space). It is an indirect detection. But inferences on the
existence and strength of primordial gravitational waves are very important
for cosmology and our understanding of the ultra-early universe.
The "inflation" theory suggests that the fluctuations that are seen in the
background radiation, and which are the "seeds" for galaxy formation, are
generated by quantum irregularities when the universe was expanding on a
timescale of 10
seconds and the entire observable universe was smaller
than a tennis ball.
But two distinct types of fluctuation could be generated in the very early
universe waves of density, and gravitational waves. The relative
amplitude of these two kinds of waves is a very important diagnostic of the
physics of the inflationary era.
These waves both contribute to the variations in temperature observed in
the background radiation (energy carrying information about the universe
when it was roughly 300,000 years old). But these waves not only perturb
the temperature, they also induce polarisation in the microwave radiation.
And it's been realised for a long time that if the polarisation could be
measured, and correlated with the variations in temperature, it would be
possible to separate out the contributions of the two types of wave.
But Planck wasn't optimised for polarisation measurements, and the best
measurements have so far come from a succession of South Pole
experiments this one is the best so far. And what it's detected is a large
enough effect that it can indeed be followed up by Planck. It rules out some
versions of "inflation" and really narrows down the options. It makes us
hopeful that we will soon have more clues to the physics of this extreme
Ben Miller, actor and science author
Your whole world is wobbling. Every time something accelerates, it creates
a ripple in the very fabric of the universe. That supernova on the far side of
the galaxy, that pair of neutron stars orbiting one another in deep space,
the tennis ball in the men's final at Wimbledon, all of them create
gravitational waves. Those waves spread out through the cosmos,
stretching and compressing space and time like the ripples on a pond.
Eventually, they will pass through you, and your space and time will
wobble. Only a bit, of course. You will shrink and stretch in height, but
imperceptibly. Your watch will run fast and slow, but by such a minute
amount as to be unnoticeable. And then the wave will pass, and your space
and your time will be still again.
At least, that was the conclusion of Albert Einstein. His general theory of
relativity tells us that in most cases, the wobbling of space and time caused
by gravitational waves will be so small as to be undetectable. To see the
effects, you need to accelerate something really big. And the universe is
pretty big. Just after the big bang, it had a rapid expansion, faster than the
speed of light. And when you accelerate something as big as the universe
as much as that, you are going to get some pretty big gravitational waves.
It's the after-effects of these waves that Bicep2 has detected.
That's the beauty of this discovery. If it turns out to be correct, it provides
valuable evidence for two things. First, that gravitational waves really do
exist. And second, that the universe we live in is a bubble that was born in
an extremely rapid expansion just after the big bang. The rapid expansion
produced gravitational waves, and those waves left an imprint on the first
So not only was Einstein right, again, and accelerating objects produce
gravitational waves, but even more incredibly, the thing we thought was the
be-all-and-end-all, our universe, is just one tiny corner of creation. There's
a beautiful circularity to that. Once we believed that the Earth stood at the
centre of the cosmos. Copernicus then convinced us the Earth orbited the
sun. Einstein showed us that there was no such thing as a centre at all;
what counts is relative motion. And now, the "smoking gun" of gravitational
waves, imprinted in the primordial light of the universe, shows us that even
the universe isn't special. It's just the place you happen to be reading this
Albert Zijlstra, director of Jodrell Bank
This is an exciting announcement. The signal they have detected carries
information about the earliest origin of the universe, and, in a way, opens
up a new window on a hidden phase in the formation of the universe.
Several groups are currently trying to detect this signal. It is a very difficult
experiment and is technically very well done. I congratulate them on the
To make full use of this signal will probably require a space satellite
mission: there are limits to what can be done from the ground. The
detection makes it more likely that such a space mission, by the ESA or by
Nasa, will eventually take place.
Some caution is still warranted: the result is preliminary and the team has
taken short cuts in the analysis, which they will have to fix before the
results can be published. We will have to wait a bit longer to see whether
their final result will change from what was announced last week. The
detection seems fairly solid, but the nature of the detection could still
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, astrophysicist
This should be viewed as a provisional result it has not yet been sent to a
professional journal for publication, it has not been peer-reviewed, and it
needs independent confirmation. Confirmation may well come from the
Planck satellite data, possibly later this year, and its data is likely to be
better in quantity and quality (and much more expensive!).
If this result is true then it is another indirect confirmation of the existence of
gravitational radiation (the first was 40 years ago from pulsar data). And it
would be confirmation that what astronomers call "inflation" took place; this
was a period of exceptionally fast expansion of space, over and above the
big bang expansion, that took place in the early universe. So it would be
reassurance that our current understanding is broadly correct.
However, this is very difficult data to work with. Extracting the signal is
analogous to cleaning an old, dirty painting to better reveal the original
underneath; one can over-clean (or under-clean). Here, the "picture
underneath" is even more heavily obscured by unwanted effects, and
removing them correctly is very tricky. I see this announcement as a place
holder, and wait for independent confirmation.
Jim Al-Khalili, physicist and broadcaster
Although the Bicep2 results have yet to be reviewed and published, all
indications are that this is a careful and thorough piece of research. Of
course the results need to be verified and reproduced elsewhere, since
"extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", but I still believe this
is a hugely significant and possibly Nobel prize-worthy discovery.
Bicep2 detects the cosmic microwave background: the weak
electromagnetic radiation pervading all space. This is the afterglow of the
big bang and it has been washing through the universe ever since. It
seems the detected radiation carries within it the imprint of ripples in space-
time known as primordial gravitational waves, which are the tremors of the
creation of the universe itself.
Probably of more interest is what these results tell us about inflation theory,
which suggests that within a tiny fraction of a second after it came into
being, the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion, driven by
a still mysterious dark energy that initiated the hot big bang and provided all
the "stuff" of the universe, including the stars, planets and us.
These results provide strong support for inflation theory, and will allow us to
work out how much dark energy drove inflation and just how hot the big
bang was. It's all very exciting.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, space scientist and broadcaster
I love the scientific method: pose a question, do some research, create a
theory, gather data/experiment to test the theory, draw conclusions and
share the results. One hundred years ago Einstein came up with a theory
describing gravitational interactions called general relativity. It predicted a
number of phenomena but the one still outstanding was the detection of
gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of space-time. The Bicep2
experiment seems to have found an imprint of the primordial gravitation
waves created in the very, very early universe.
The fact that these waves have been found could lead to the verification of
another theory produced by Alan Guth in 1980. This theory predicted the
rapid expansion of the early universe, termed "cosmic inflation", a bit of
fudge to explain early events after the big bang. One of the predictions of
the theory was the generation of gravitational waves, with a distinctive
signature. It seems that Bicep2 may have found the echoes of these
Pending independent verification, if these results are found to be correct,
work in cosmology continues apace. Converging on a grand unified theory
of everything is still the holy grail, where we can understand the interaction
of the universe at the subatomic, quantum mechanics scale as well as
gravitational interactions that happen on a cosmic scale, all in a common