In a tiny fraction of a second, an outburst of energy propelled our universe from a hot, dense point to cosmic size. This theoretical outburst, called inflation, provides a fantastically accurate explanation of why the cosmos is the way it is.
Among other things, it predicts the pattern of temperature blotches astronomers observe in their earliest view of the cosmos, the cosmic microwave background (CMB). But there’s still no conclusive evidence that inflation happened. …
Now, a team of astronomers using the South Pole Telescope (SPT) in Antarctica has detected a pattern in the CMB that might help reveal inflation’s signature. But it will be tough to untangle completely.
The discovered signals are called B-modes, and they’re one of two main patterns of polarization predicted to exist in the CMB. Polarization describes a light wave that prefers to vibrate in a particular orientation rather than randomly. On a map of the CMB, you can use a line segment to mark the direction in which the waves oscillate. When you look at the map as a whole, these lines create collective patterns, called E-modes and B-modes. E-modes look like symmetric asterisks or loops, while B-modes curl clockwise or counterclockwise in spiral patterns.
If inflation really did happen, the turmoil within it would have created signature ripples in spacetime called gravitational waves. These waves should have imprinted E-modes and B-modes into the CMB.
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