KSJ Tracker March 17, 2014

Big News on Birth of the Universe. The Guardian Is Out of the Gate Early

Did this detector see hints of the birth of the universe?

Last week, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics sent out a maddening press announcement, promising to reveal a  major cosmological discovery on March 17th and giving not a clue what it would be.

This morning, a new press release explains that scientists are announcing an important new insight into the first moments of the universe’s expansion. With a detector at the South Pole, a group claims to have found  the signature of gravitational waves – a phenomenon that’s long been predicted and sought as evidence for the favored version of the big bang known as inflation.

The Guardian didn’t wait for this promised revelation, running a story last Friday: Gravitational Waves: have US Scientists Heard Echoes of the Big Bang?

The story, by Stuart Clark, captures the excitement in the cosmology community and seems to be in ballpark on the nature of the finding.

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.

A very good story explaining the context and background of the search appeared in Sky and Telescope last October. Bruce Lieberman’s Back to the Big Bang explains what gravitational waves are and how they might leave traces in the sky that astronomers can detect by observing cosmic microwaves.

Physicist/blogger Sean Carroll has also written a very detailed piece here, in which he’s quite clear he thinks this is a big deal:

Punchline: other than finding life on other planets or directly detecting dark matter, I can’t think of any other plausible near-term astrophysical discovery more important than this one for improving our understanding of the universe. It would be the biggest thing since dark energy.

With a press conference at noon EDT, we will all learn much more.

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