Evidence of the existence of gravitational waves was found for the first time by a US team at the south pole’s BICEP detector. Predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, the waves are a product of the big bang and provide strong evidence for ‘cosmic inflation’.
Professor John Womersley, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which funds UK research into cosmology, said:
“Modern cosmology is based on three underlying assumptions – inflation, dark matter and dark energy. We don’t know what any of them actually are, but over the last few years we have seen increasingly strong evidence that they are real.
“Today’s announcement from the Bicep project continues that process. Inflation is the very rapid expansion of the very early universe that is one of the pillars of our understanding of cosmology. Without inflation we would not be here.
“A detection of primordial B-mode polarisation provides very strong evidence for inflation and, if the Bicep results are verified by other experiments, that will be what we have. With the recent confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson and now the first direct evidence for inflation, these are very exciting times to be a physicist.”
Dr Ed Daw from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy said:
“Gravitational waves emitted at the time of the big bang can tell us how the Universe came to exist. The BICEP experiment has today announced the detection of evidence for these primordial waves. If these results prove correct, we will have new key information on the very early Universe, information that is hard to get from any other source.
“Gravitational waves are a new frontier in astrophysics and cosmology. If today’s findings are accurate then it will further strengthen our understanding of how the Universe formed.”
Dr Chris Lintott, Astrophysicist at the University of Oxford, said:
“We know the announcement is from the team behind the BICEP experiment, which studies the cosmic microwave background (CMB) from the excellent observing site at the South Pole.
“The CMB is radiation emitted just 400,000 years after the Big Bang, but in this case the really exciting stuff would be evidence of what was happening much earlier. One target for the experiment is spotting the effect on the CMB of gravitational waves that would bear the signature of inflation – a long-postulated sudden expansion of the Universe that happened a ten-million-billion-billion-billionth of a second after its beginning. Finding this would be the most significant cosmological discovery in nearly two decades, and a huge triumph for physics.
“It’s like all our Christmases at once – I doubt many cosmologists will get much sleep tonight.”