|NASA/WMAP Science Team|
New NASA space-probe observations of the oldest light in the cosmos are the most direct evidence yet that the universe expanded extremely quickly immediately after the big bang, physicists say.
(Read the rest of my article in National Geographic News, March 17)
This result by NASA’s WMAP mission had long been awaited as a crucial test for the particular big bang scenario known as cosmic inflation. Alan Guth first came up with the idea of inflation at the end of 1979, when he was a struggling elementary particle theorist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. I wrote about Guth on the 25th anniversary of his discovery in my Symmetry magazine article. I also wrote about the original notebook — now in a museum — where he jotted down his “spectacular realization.”The new evidence for inflation came from the WMAP team’s ability to refine its 2003 results using a new kind of map of the early universe. This new map shows how the 14-billion-year old “fossil” radiation, called cosmic microwave background, is polarized. To go one step further, and understand what fueled inflation, astronomers would now like to study the finer details of this polarization. But for that, they’ll need a truly new generation of radio telescope, as I described in my 2004 article Catching the Cosmic Waves.
For more on the physics of the new WMAP discovery, see my write-up in Physics News Update:
A New Triumph for Inflation