The Fingerprints Of God Are Found Imprinted On The Sky

This is an image showing the changing polarisation of microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang in different parts of the sky. The Antarctic telescope discovered a faint but distinctive swirl pattern in the polarisation of cosmic microwaves left over from the Big Bang. This is evidence of cosmic inflation.

This is an image showing the changing polarisation of microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang in different parts of the sky. The Antarctic telescope discovered a faint but distinctive swirl pattern in the polarisation of cosmic microwaves left over from the Big Bang. This is evidence of cosmic inflation. Courtesy: BICEP2 collaboration and Nature.

News of a major breakthrough in physics emerged yesterday (Monday, 17 March, 2014) and is reported widely across the press today; and rightly so, for this is one of the most important scientific discoveries of our time.

Scientists using a special radio telescope in Antarctica have found evidence that ancient waves of gravity rippled through space during the early universe billions of years ago, leaving a pattern that can still be seen written in the sky today. Their results are published in the leading scientific journal Nature.

Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago and so this discovery would be significant enough in its own right. But to see why scientists are so excited, you need to appreciate that the news announced yesterday is the astronomical equivalent of a buy-one-get-two-free deal.

For these ripples also provide direct evidence that, in the first fleeting fraction of a second after creation, the universe expanded exponentially, inflating space itself incredibly rapidly. This means that the universe we can see around us today, the visible universe that seems to extend for 13.8 billion light years in every direction, is in fact just an infinitesimally small part of a much larger whole, a universe that stretches far beyond the view of our even our best telescopes. This theory of cosmic inflation, first proposed by Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) back in 1980, was until yesterday just that – a theory. Not any more.

However, the story gets even more exciting. The data that has been collected shines a light on the behaviour of gravity in the early universe when this force interacted intimately with subatomic particles and other forces. This is potentially even more significant than proof of cosmic inflation since it may in time help scientists to plug a major hole in our understanding of the universe and bring us closer to a single complete mathematical description of reality – the elusive Theory Of Everything. Physics does not get any more fundamental.

The discovery has been made by a US team led by John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts, using a radio telescope instrument called BICEP2.

The BICEP2 microwave telescope at the South Pole thabenefits from the desert-dry air above Antarctica where there is very little moisture to absorb microwaves.

The BICEP2 microwave telescope at the South Pole that benefits from the desert-dry air above Antarctica where there is very little moisture to absorb microwaves. Courtesy: Steffen Richter, Harvard University and Nature.

Glow From The Big Bang

Most people know that the universe started with the Big Bang, a huge burst of energy out of which all of time and space and matter erupted. Since that instant of creation some 13.8 billion years ago, the cosmos has cooled and condensed into the universe of galaxies and stars and planets that we see around us today.

But our radio telescopes can still detect the afterglow of the Big Bang. The universe has not cooled completely and there is still a glow from the residual heat left over from a time around 400,000 years after the Big Bang; not a yellow or red glow that we might associate with embers here on Earth, but a glow of invisible microwave radiation that can only be seen by special radio telescopes.

This microwave glow is all around us in the sky. Everywhere we look our radio telescopes can see what scientists call the cosmic microwave background. It was discovered in the 1960s is our best evidence that the universe was indeed created out of a huge explosion.

Inflation

Now, microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation similar to light but they have a much longer wavelength. However, they exhibit all the same properties and behaviours as visible light. This includes polarisation, the property of waves that allows them to align in one plane or another. We make use of this effect in our everyday lives on Earth when we use polarising sun glasses.

A special telescope set up in Antarctica, where it can exploit the clear dry skies that are ideal for sensitive measurements of microwaves, has used the radio astronomy equivalent of polarising glasses to measure the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background. And it is the results from this study that are behind this week’s major announcement.

For the telescope has found a pattern in the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background. The plane of polarisation of these microwaves is different in different parts of the sky and it appears to curl in a particular way making a distinctive swirling pattern across the whole sky – a pattern reminiscent of fingerprints… The Fingerprints of God.

These “fingerprints” are evidence for the effects of inflation. Scientists know that the process of inflation would have created huge waves of gravitational energy as the universe accelerated rapidly in all directions and that these would have spread out across the whole cosmos. Gravitational waves compress space in one direction and stretch it in another, and so change the polarisation of electromagnetic radiation passing through that space. And it turns out that the polarisation pattern found in the cosmic microwave background is exactly what would be expected from the creation of gravity waves caused by cosmic inflation immediately after the Big Bang.

Combining Gravity And Quantum Mechanics

This is where story gets even more interesting. These inflationary gravity waves provide a bridge between the physics of the very big and the physics of the very small and our two long established but separate theories that describe these realms. Our theory of the very big is Einstein’s famous General Theory of Relativity which is a theory of gravitation that successfully describes the universe at cosmological scales. Our understanding of the physics of the very small is set out in our theory of Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the behaviour of tiny sub-atomic particles and the forces between them – a theory which Einstein also had a hand in developing.

Quantum Mechanics describes the workings of electrons and light and other phenomena so well that we can build microchips and mobile phones and body scanners; it successfully predicted the existence of antimatter and most recently the existence of the Higgs Boson – the God Particle. It is a good theory – it works. Similarly General Relativity successfully describes the behaviour of stars and galaxies; it predicted the existence of black holes and the fact that the gravitational fields of stars and galaxies can bend passing light rays and slow down time – it too works.

However, all attempts to merge General Relativity with Quantum Mechanics into a single theory, that was sought by Einstein among others, have so far run into trouble. As a result we have two theories where there should be just one.

The problem is that there are many possible ways that gravity could be combined with all the other forces of nature but scientists have had no way of knowing which is right. In the universe around us, we just do not see gravity interacting with quantum mechanical processes in any meaningful way. The very big is very separate from the very small.

Towards A Mathematical Theory Of Everything

But this was not the case in the very early universe. In the first few fractions of a second, when all of the forces of nature and all of the particles of matter swarmed in a dense quantum mechanical soup, when inflation occurred and triggered the production of gravity waves, at this very earliest moment of existence, gravity and quantum mechanics operated as one.

And that is why the announcement yesterday is potentially so very important. For it provides a window on the behaviour of gravity at the very beginning of time when it operated in a quantum universe. This discovery may just help scientists to refine and calibrate their ideas on how quantum mechanics and gravity interact. In this way, they may be able to select which of the many possible ways of combining quantum mechanics and gravity is the right approach and so pin down the elusive Theory Of Everything.

If this breakthrough does help physicists to develop the ultimate fusion of mathematics with reality then we are truly one step closer to knowing the mind of God.

And science doesn’t get much bigger than that.

Sources

Harvard Smithsonian Press Release here.

Nature report here.  

Nature video here.  

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Comments
One Response to “The Fingerprints Of God Are Found Imprinted On The Sky”
  1. Jorgen Faxholm says:

    Allow me a very small, dissenting tweet 😉
    Yes, the discovery is hugely exciting, but also very confusing, as we now have to analyse and explain an an already complex story with even more complications thrown in.
    Einstein predicted gravity waves, but at what speed are they distributed?
    If at the speed of light (as often accepted), something doesn’t tally as it would create complete chaos, because the gravitational reaction to a disturbance would only reach the point of disturbance “lightyears” later. We don’t see that.
    The “immediate expansion of the Universe predict an action, that happened faster than the speed of light. Otherwise we couldn’t “see” the original galaxies and determine that they are 13 Bill light years away – they had to get there somehow in the first place. Faster than the speed of light?
    We gloss over that.
    Dark energy and dark matter are still just mathematical predictions, not observations, despite all our attempts and recent heurekas about having ‘found’ them.
    Finally (well, just another one): Only half the serious astrophysicists believe in a big bang.
    So we are back to Einstein’s own statement, that 100 scientists can promote a theory, but it only takes 1, with the right facts, to disprove it.
    As my kids used to say: are we there yet?

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