(USA TODAY) -- In a landmark achievement, scientists say they have seen ripples inthe weave of the universe, which would provide the first direct evidencethat the universe underwent a massive and incomprehensibly fast growthspurt in its earliest infancy.
If the new findings are confirmed,they could very well earn their discoverers the Nobel Prize, saysastrophysicist Xavier Siemens of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.Researchers have sought to detect these ripples, known asgravitational waves, for years, and more than a dozen telescopes havebeen looking for them. Though Einstein predicted gravitational waves, hethought they might not be detectable, and their existence was in somedoubt.
Outside scientists' early reaction included some skepticism but also amazement and admiration.
Thesigns in the data pointing to gravitational waves are "extraordinarilystrong, huge huge news ... wow," tweeted Dominique Aubert, an astronomerat the University of Strasbourg in France.
The new researchprovides a glimpse of the universe just after the Big Bang, when it wasan infinitesimal fraction of a second old and smaller than the period atthe end of this sentence. To explain how the universe evolved from thatstate to the form it has today, scientists have posited an event justafter the Big Bang called "inflation," when space expanded violently andexponentially in the merest sliver of a second.
That process should have created gravitational waves, which squeezeand deform space. That process in turn leaves a stamp on the earliestlight in the universe, which even now pervades the cosmos as a faintglow invisible to the naked eye called the cosmic microwave background.Scientists have long realized that a close study of those cosmicmicrowaves should turn up evidence for gravitational waves, if suchwaves exist.
But finding evidence is not as simple as aiming atelescope at the sky. Water in the atmosphere blocks microwaves, so thebest place on Earth to study cosmic microwaves is the South Pole, wherethe super-dry, clear air offers a unique window onto the microwavebackground in the heavens. The South Pole boasts several instrumentsbuilt by competing scientists, all working to locate gravitationalwaves.
The prize was won at last by the BICEP2 telescope, acollaboration among scientists from across the United States. Thetelescope detected a telltale "curl" in the ancient microwaves - apattern that is the fingerprint of gravitational waves. The findingshould boost the fortunes of the inflation theory, which someastrophysicists have dismissed as inadequate, as long as the data areborne out. The scientists behind the new results say their data, whichthey are submitting to a scientific journal now, are strong enough tohold up to scrutiny.
"This has been like looking for a needle in ahaystack," said one of the researchers, co-leader Clem Pryke of theUniversity of Minnesota in a statement, "but instead we found acrowbar."