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Tag archive for: cosmic inflation

Understanding the origins of our physical universe

Posted in science and technology

Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson has made a documentary called Particle Fever which covers the story of the construction of the Large Hadron Collider and the subsequent discovery of the Higgs boson, a.k.a. The God Particle. Here’s the trailer:

“Whatever we learn is going to have a dramatic impact on the way humans think about the universe forever.”

Side note: The film was also edited by the legendary Oscar-winner Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), and has a rare 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the website that aggregates critics’ and audience members’ ratings of a film.

The discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012 (and its confirmation in 2013) is perhaps a precursor of sorts to a huge, albeit esoteric, science news story that emerged this week confirming the theory of Cosmic Inflation. Until now, Inflation has been sort of an inference based on what might be called circumstantial evidence we’ve collected while observing the shape of the visible universe as well its oldest visible light. It provides a theory for explaining how our physical universe expanded in a super-rapid fashion just after The Big Bang. Now, however, this theory has effectively been proven:

“This is spectacular,” commented Prof Marc Kamionkowski, from Johns Hopkins University. “I’ve seen the research; the arguments are persuasive, and the scientists involved are among the most careful and conservative people I know,” he told BBC News.

Astronomer Phil Plait also writes lucidly on this topic at Slate:

Inflationary models predict that the rapid expansion that occurred directly after The Big Bang would have created certain noticeable patterns in the cosmos called “gravitational waves,” whose existence having been observed in 1993 resulted in that year’s Nobel prize. Plait explains:

We don’t see the waves themselves, but we can detect the effect they had on light coming from the early Universe. The waves would polarize the light, in a sense aligning the waves of light in certain ways. There are many different ways light can be polarized, but gravitational waves left over from inflation would do so in a very specific way (called B mode polarization, which twists and curls the direction of the polarization; see this image). Finding this kind of polarization in the light leftover from the fires of the Big Bang would be clear evidence of gravitational waves… and it was precisely this type of polarization that was finally detected by a telescope called BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization), located in Antarctica.

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