Inflation: Mindblowing discovery expands our knowledge of the universe

At 2:55am EST on Tuesday the 18th of March 2014, Physics changed forever.

Okay, that might be a little overdramatic, but at 2:55am EST on Tuesday the 18th of March 2014, an announcement was made that makes last year’s Higgs Boson (aka God Particle) discovery look about as revolutionary as someone discovering that water is wet.

Seriously. This is big news. But first we need some background information.

Just over 13.7 billion years ago, the entire universe came into existence after the Big Bang. Less than one second later, the universe expanded by more than 30 orders of magnitude, which is more than it has expanded in the subsequent 13.7 billion years.

To try put that into perspective, imagine if one of those one metre long rulers teachers used in primary school suddenly expanded to be one million, million, million, million, million, million metres long. That the ruler became so large that the Earth, the Sun, the Milky Way and the entire universe would be less than 1mm on this gigantic one meter ruler. And that the ruler had this massive increase in size in less than one second. In a tiny fraction of one second.

Then that ruler would have experienced ‘Inflation’, which is what scientists call the theory that predicts this tiny period of time that the universe experienced this massive expansion.

Inflation was first devised by physicist called Alan Guth in 1979 as a possible explanation for some strange observations that were being made. Physicists were discovering that the universe appeared to be flat, homogenous and isotropic or, in English, that it looked pretty much identical in every direction.

This was an observation that the theory behind the Big Bang didn’t predict,so scientists were scratching their heads as to how it could be explained.

This is where the theory of Inflation came in. This rapid expansion would have taken the unevenness caused by the Big Bang and then smoothed it all out, similar to how an uninflated balloon is all wrinkly and wonky but an inflated one is smooth.

And until 2:55am EST on Tuesday the 18th of March 2014, it was just a theory.

But now we have evidence for Inflation. A team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics using a super sensitive instrument built near the South Pole detected evidence that strongly supports the theory of Inflation.

Yet that’s only half the story. The specific evidence that the scientists have found are distortions in the polarisation of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), which is the faint afterglow from the Big Bang that stops us from directly observing anything from the first 300,000 years of the universe.

These distortions in the CMB appear to have been caused by gravitational waves. That is major news in of itself, as gravitational waves were first predicted by Einstein over 100 years ago but had never been observed by scientists. Until now.

Even more awesome is that these gravitational waves allow us to smash past the 300,000 wall of the CMB,letting us observe the universe up to 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang. Or about one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. Which is why we can use them to observe the effects of Inflation.

So why is it important that we discovered evidence for the theory of Inflation?

Well firstly, there wasn’t actually one theory of Inflation, there were over a hundred different ones and we had no way to tell which (if any) were correct. This observation rules out all but a handful of these possible theories from being true.

What’s more, the energy levels of the distortions detected put it square on level with what would be required for the ‘Grand Unified Theory’ to be true. The Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is a hypothesis where three of the four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear and the strong nuclear) are combined as a single fundamental force in the highly energetic early universe. This brings us one step close to the grand ‘Theory of Everything’ which merges the GUT with gravity (the fourth fundamental force) and would, as the name implies, explain everything about the universe.

Also the fact that this discovery has once again shown that Einstein was right is pretty cool too.

Needless to say there is going to be a lot of investigation by other scientists to try to prove or disprove what the Harvard Scientists have found. But if they are correct then they will easily get a Nobel Prize for it. And Tuesday the 18th of March, 2014, will go down as an incredibly important day in the history of human knowledge.