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Cosmic inflation throws gasoline on that fire. It makes the big bang even bangier right at the start. Instead of a linear expansion, the universe would have undergone an exponential growth.
In 1979, theorist Alan Guth, then at Stanford, seized on a potential explanation for some of the lingering mysteries of the universe, such as the remarkable homogeneity of the whole place - the way distantly removed parts of the universe had the same temperature and texture even though they had never been in contact with each other. Perhaps the universe did not merely expand in a stately manner but went through a much more dramatic, exponential expansion, essentially going from microscopic in scale to cosmically huge in a tiny fraction of a second.
It is unclear how long this inflationary epoch lasted. Kovac calculated that in that first fraction of a second the volume of the universe increased by a factor of 10 to the 26th power, going from subatomic to cosmic.
This is obviously difficult terrain for theorists, and the question of why there is something rather than nothing creeps into realms traditionally governed by theologians. But theoretical physicists say that empty space is not empty, that the vacuum crackles with energy and that quantum physics permits such mind-boggling events as a universe popping up seemingly out of nowhere.
"Inflation - the idea of a very big burst of inflation very early on - is the most important idea in cosmology since the big bang itself," said Michael Turner, a University of Chicago cosmologist. "If correct, this burst is the dynamite behind our big bang."
Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel said after Monday’s announcement, "If true, this has revolutionary impacts for our understanding of the physics of the early universe and gives us insight into physics on really small scales."
Spergel added, "We will soon know if this result is revolutionary or due to some poorly understood systematics."
The inflationary model implies that our universe is exceedingly larger than what we currently observe, which is humbling already in its scale. Moreover, the vacuum energy that drove the inflationary process would presumably imply the existence of a larger cosmos, or "multiverse," of which our universe is but a granular element.
"These ideas about the multiverse become interesting to me only when theories come up with testable predictions based on them," Kovac said Monday. "The powerful thing about the basic inflationary paradigm is that it did offer us this clear, testable prediction: the existence of gravitational waves which are directly linked to the exponential expansion that’s intrinsic to the theory."
The cosmological models favored by scientists do not permit us to have contact with other potential universes. The multiverse is, for now, conjectural, because it is not easily subject to experimental verification and is unobservable - from the South Pole or from anywhere else.
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