The most under-reported science story of 2014

The discovery of gravity waves in 2014 barely made a ripple in popular media. In the science world, however, it was big news.

James Charbonneau (my son), theoretical physicist at UBC, exclaims: “It’s a big deal.” If confirmed, discovery at the telescope in Antarctica opens a window into the workings of the Big Bang.

While discovery of the Higgs boson made big news in 2012, and deservedly so, astronomers working out of the spotlight in a remote inhospitable part of the world with a relatively small budget found vital evidence of gravity waves. The telescope is called Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization telescope (BICEP2).

Both discoveries are profound because they add pieces of the puzzle of how our universe unfolded.

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The gravity waves were detected indirectly by the pattern imprinted on light from the dawn of time.

This early light, called the cosmic microwave background, is everywhere you look in space. Discovery of this primeval light in 1978, itself, was worthy of a Nobel Prize for Physics.

Albert Einstein predicted gravity waves in 1915. He revolutionized our concept of gravity as being a distortion of the fabric of space. While this most of his predictions have proved to be true, gravity waves have been elusive.

The discovery of gravity waves reveals the tremendous energies that existed at the moment of the Big Bang when the universe was smaller than an atom. In this incredible, hot universe all the known physical forces were thought to be combined one in a Grand Unified Theory (GUT).

As the forces split apart, space was no longer empty but filled with a Higgs Field that affected the way particles move through space, effectively giving them mass. Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicists at Arizona State University, puts it this way: “This fantastical picture was validated at the Large Hadron Collider, . . . with the discovery of the Higgs Boson.”

This fantastical picture was first proposed in 1980 by Alan Guth, a young postdoctoral physicist. He applied a principle called spontaneous symmetry breaking to the Big Bang and called his idea inflation. Yes, inflation is just what you imagine it to be: the universe inflates like a balloon.

As the universe inflates, spontaneous symmetry breaking splits off forces we now see as independent: The strong force is short-ranged and holds nuclei of atoms together; the electromagnetic force causes electric and magnetic effects; the weak force is responsible for radioactive decay. The gravitational force, which is weak but very long ranged, may be also be part of the group.

Inflation was over in less than a second but in the violent birth of the universe, gravity waves imprinted themselves on the cosmic background in an unmistakable pattern shown above.

The results from BICEP2 have yet to be confirmed. Canadian scientists are participating in another experiment called SPIDER (Suborbital Polarimeter for Inflation Dust and the Epoch of Reionization). It too, will be conducted in Antarctica except that the telescope will be hung from balloons to get a clearer view.

Weather permitting, SPIDER will be launched any day now.

 

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