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Gravitational waves unmask universe just after Big Bang

For first time, researchers see traces of superfast cosmic expansion

6:23pm, March 17, 2014

COSMIC SWIRL  Gravitational waves generated during a period of cosmic inflation twirl light from the cosmic microwave background, as seen in this sky map from the BICEP2 telescope. The lines trace the alignment, or polarization, of photons released after the Big Bang; the line lengths show the light’s intensity. The colors indicate how strongly twisted the polarization is, both clockwise (red) and counterclockwise (blue).

Editor's note: The findings reported in this story were later found to be caused by galactic dust. Read the full story here.

Astronomers have detected the earliest echoes of the Big Bang, confirming a decades-old hypothesis that describes the universe’s ultrafast expansion during its first moments. The findings provide researchers with the first direct measurement of conditions at nearly the instant that cosmic expansion began, and may have far-reaching implications for physicists’ understanding of general relativity, quantum mechanics and the origin of the universe.

“We now have a much stronger belief that we understand the early universe than we did yesterday,” says Sean Carroll, an astrophysicist at Caltech.

For decades, astronomers have tried to understand several quirks surrounding the Big Bang, the story that describes how the

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