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Inflation on Trial

Astrophysicists interrogate one of their most successful theories

Ask any astronomer what inflation is, and you’ll hear about the moment when the universe’s primordial fireball expanded like a balloon on steroids, smoothing and flattening its initial wrinkles before it grew into the cosmos seen today.

Now, some physicists are trying to let a little air out of that scenario.

Generally regarded as one of the most successful theories about the early universe, inflationary cosmology is not exactly under attack. But a few scientists are questioning whether it deserves its reputation as completely untouchable. Inflation may be the best-developed explanation for many features seen in the modern universe, these researchers say, but it still has problems.

“The picture doesn’t really hold together,” says Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist at Princeton University. “Either inflation needs a major overhaul or we have to think about some other approach to cosmology.”

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