Yesterday morning Mark Kamionkowski called the findings of the BICEP2 collaboration team "extraordinary results." Quoting Carl Sagan, he added, "And extraordinary results require extraordinary scrutiny." He was referring to the team's revelation of the "smoking gun" evidence of the big bang.
As the team members themselves reiterated during the presentation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this is incredibly complex stuff to understand. Expanded universe theory is so complex that only a few weeks ago we found out that Albert Einstein delved into it, abandoned his research and never published the results. BrainStuff's own Jonathan Strickland has a great explanation of how the big bang theory works if you want a primer before diving into the deep end of BICEP2's results. What it boils down to is the idea that 13.8 billion years ago, in less than a second, the universe expanded exponentially.
The researchers from BICEP2 announced the first direct evidence that the big bang actually occurred. To be more specific, their computer models indicate that the universe expanded by 100 trillion trillion times in .0000000000000000000000000000000001 (10 to the minus-34) seconds. You can read their official press release, watch an MP4 video of their announcement or even dig into their data online.
So what's their smoking gun? Gravitational waves, also called "ripples in space-time" or "the first tremors of the big bang." Using specialized telescopes, these waves are observable because the big bang's inflation process is still happening. The team isolated the waves by detecting B-mode polarization patterns measured in light.
The team gets their name from the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP) telescope array at the South Pole. From 2010-2012 they gathered "relentless observations" 24-hours a day, concentrating on a small patch of points as far away from the Milky Way as possible. Team leader John Kovac from Harvard University said: "The South Pole is the closest you can get to space and still be on the ground. It's one of the driest and clearest locations on Earth, perfect for observing the faint microwaves from the big bang." The team is currently using the Keck Array, which is 5 times more powerful than BICEP2 to continue their observations.
The team consists of four primary investigators: Kovacs (Harvard), Clem Pryke (University of Minnesota), Jamie Bock (Caltech & JPL) and Chao-Lin Kuo (Stanford). They're joined by several postdocs and graduate assistants. Engineer Stefan Richter spent three winters at the South Pole facility, monitoring the equipment. Other collaborating institutions include: the University of California at San Diego, the University of British Columbia, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the University of Toronto, Cardiff University, Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique.
To come back to the Sagan quote, the BICEP2 team's results took extraordinary scrutiny. It was 3 years of analyzing data before they felt sure that their results hadn't been affected by fidelity or sensitivity issues with the equipment. They even considered whether dust could have produced the patterns observed, but believe it's highly unlikely. During the announcement, Pryke said that other studies and experiments are being conducted by various separate research groups that will hopefully corroborate their results and be released soon.
See also: Klotz, Irene. "Big Bang's Smoking Gun Found." Discovery News. March 17, 2014. Accessed online March 18, 2014. http://news.discovery.com/space/astronomy/big-bangs-smoking-gun-discovered-140317.htm