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There is intense speculation among cosmologists that a US team is on the verge of confirming they have detected "primordial gravitational waves" – an echo of the big bang in which the universe came into existence 14bn years ago.
Rumours have been rife in the physics community about an announcement due on Monday from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If there is evidence for gravitational waves, it would be a landmark discovery that would change the face of cosmology and particle physics.
Gravitational waves are the last untested prediction of Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. They are minuscule ripples in the fabric of the universe that carry energy across space, somewhat similar to waves crossing an ocean. Convincing evidence of their discovery would almost certainly lead to a Nobel prize.
For decades, cosmologists have thought that the signature of primordial gravitational waves could be imprinted on this radiation. "It's been called the Holy Grail of cosmology," says Peiris, "It would be a real major, major, major discovery."
Martin Hendry at the University of Glasgow works on several projects designed to directly detect gravitational waves. "If Bicep have made a detection," he says, "it's clear that this new window on the universe is really opening up."
According to theory, the primordial gravitational waves will tell us about the first, infinitessimal moment of the universe's history. Cosmologists believe that 10-34 seconds after the big bang (a decimal point followed by 33 zeros and a one) the universe was driven to expand hugely.
Known as inflation, the theory was dreamed up to explain why the universe is so remarkably uniform from place to place. But it has always lacked some credibility because no one can find a convincing physical explanation for why it happened.
On Monday, Dr. Guth’s starship came in. Radio astronomers reported that they had seen the beginning of the Big Bang, and that his hypothesis, known undramatically as inflation, looked right.
Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic time with telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called gravitational waves — the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.
For more than three decades, inflation, first proposed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Alan Guth, has been an attractive, but unproven theory for the rapid expansion of the early universe. Guth describes it as the “bang” of the Big Bang.
Inflation proposes that the initial expansion was caused by a repulsive form of gravity. The initial patch of the universe that underwent inflation would have been unbelievably small, about the billionth the size of a proton, and then expanded exponentially. It was proposed because simpler models of the Big Bang could not explain some features of the universe.
As Guth’s idea has been refined and developed further by other scientists over the years, its predictions seemed to be bearing out, but there was still no direct evidence for inflation and it was unclear whether the theory would ever have direct proof to bolster it. The energy needed to recreate the conditions in a particle accelerator were so high that it was unfeasible to think about recreating it. What inflation did predict, however, was a particular polarization pattern in the cosmic microwave background—the faint light that is the afterglow of the Big Bang.
Using a telescope called BICEP2 based at the South Pole, the Harvard-led team claims to have detected a polarization pattern in the faint light left over from the Big Bang that will, if confirmed by other experiments, be strong evidence in favor of inflation.
Guth said he learned the results when Kovac, the astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, e-mailed him to tell him he had some urgent news. Kovac came to Guth’s office at MIT and disclosed the results last week.
“I was ecstatic,” said Guth. “I hope this will sort of put the nail in the coffin, and define inflation as being the theory.”
Communication system using gravitational waves
US 6300614 B1
A method and apparatus for communication using gravitational waves is disclosed. The system utilizes a resonant frequency set up between identical masses to transmit information. The communication system uses two pieces of superconducting material, identical in size, mass and shape; means to modify the density of the first piece of superconducting material at a variable frequency; and detection means for sensing the effect of gravitational wave pulses on said second piece of superconducting material.