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Behind This Week’s News about the Big Bang

News posts

Wondering what this week’s breaking story about the Big Bang theory means for our knowledge of our universe? Or why you’re suddenly reading about “inflation” in a story about astrophysics? And just what are “cosmic ripples”? 

Astrophysicist Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, who curated the Museum’s new Space Show Dark Universe—which is all about how we know what we know about the formation of the universe more than 13.8 billion years ago—helped us break down the exciting headlines. 

South Pole Observatory

Researchers studying cosmic "inflation" used instruments housed on this building, located near the geographic South Pole in Antarctica, among the best places on Earth for observing space because it is so clear and so dry.  

National Science Foundation


First, the findings. On Monday, an international team of researchers using data from a South Pole radio telescope announced they had detected direct evidence of the universe’s earliest expansion in a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. 

What kind of evidence? In the first instants after the Big Bang, the observable universe was minute and as dense as the interior of a black hole. “Then, for a brief moment after the Big Bang, the universe appears to have expanded at astonishing velocity,” explains Dr. Mac Low. Theorists call this phenomenon  “inflation.”  

This violent expansion, researchers hypothesized, formed the “ripples” that recently made international headlines—gravitational waves that still permeate the universe today. Researchers using the South Pole observatory data reported the first direct evidence of these gravitational waves.

They gathered the evidence by making long-term observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background, the remaining light of the Big Bang, which was emitted about 380,000 years after the formation of the universe. The researchers were able to see that the light had been polarized in a pattern that could only have been produced by the hypothesized gravitational waves. “The light making up the cosmic background radiation was distorted by a bath of gravitational waves left over from inflation,” explains Mac Low. 

Learn more about the cosmic microwave background in this video with Dr. Mac Low.


What’s next? Later this year, other teams of researchers, including those using data from the European Space Agency/NASA Planck satellite, may confirm these findings from the earliest moments of the universe.  “Before this work, the earliest period we had direct evidence for was a few minutes after the Big Bang,” says Dr. Mac Low. “Now we have data from the first 10-36 seconds.”

Learn more about what we know about the universe—and see amazing visualizations of the Cosmic Microwave Background, Planck satellite, and dark matter—in Dark Universe, playing now at the Hayden Planetarium. 

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