The physics community is buzzing with exciting news from a team of Harvard scientists today. They are claiming to have detected gravitational waves produced by the inflationary period that occurred in the first second of the Universe's existence. 

Specifically they claim to have detected B-mode polarization of photons caused by inflationary gravitation waves resulting from the Big Bang.

Over the past century, there has been growing evidence that the Universe began in a sudden 'explosion' known as the Big Bang. Models have been developed and tested the show the Universe immediately entered a period of rapid expansion known as "inflation", after which it began to cool down and all matter in the Universe was formed. As all matter (and in fact all energy) generates gravitational fields, these violent processes in the early universe produced rapidly changing gravitational fields that took the form of waves. (As an aside, the existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Einstein nearly a century ago, but this is the first significant experimental evidence of their existence)

These gravitational waves have an effect on all of the matter and light around them. In particular, photons of light that were travelling through them were twisted effectively changing their polarization. These photons then continued travelling through space for billions of years, carrying their altered polarization until they get absorbed by matter. Since there is very little matter compared to the vastness of space, most of these photons from the Big Bang still exist in their original form.

Scientists have studied these photons in detail for about twenty years now, but previously they had only measured their densities and temperatures. In this new announcement, they also measured the polarization and discovered that this predicted polarization effect from gravitational waves in the inflationary phase of the cosmos is real and can be observed. Furthermore, this result provides strong counter-evidence for several interesting alternative theories to the Big Bang (such as the ekpyrotic model that I discussed in a previous posting) as they do not generate gravitational waves in the same manner. (Although I personally have faith in theorists to develop a new variation of the theory which is consistent with the new results)

And that means that the evidence for the Big Bang, for gravitational waves, and for inflationary models has just gotten a strong boost. So much so that many physicists are already marking this result as the frontrunner for next year's Nobel Prize in physics. And if their results hold up under scrutiny, and they themselves have been studying this for three years scrutinizing it themselves, that would be a reasonable prediction. This is indeed the most amazing discovery in cosmology in over a decade!