So there’s good inflation after all. On Monday a team of astronomers reported finding gravitational waves dating back more than 13 billion years. The finding, based on years of observational work from radio telescopes at the South Pole, strongly supports a standard theory in modern cosmology known as “inflation,” which in turn explains the uniformity of the cosmos.
Is this the last word on the subject? No: Mistakes can be made when you are peering at a picture of the universe when it was merely 380,000 years old. Data gathered by the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite offered different cosmic temperature readings. And contrary to what you might have heard from Al Gore, scientific “consensus” is subject to change based on new facts.
Still, this week’s findings are an example of cautious empirical research shoring up elegant scientific theory. Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago as part of his general theory of relativity. “Inflation” itself was the brainchild of physicist Alan Guth. As a young scientist at Stanford, he had, as he wrote to himself in 1979, a “SPECTACULAR REALIZATION” about how the cosmos might have evolved. These days he says he’s surprised that he might live long enough to have his Eureka moment confirmed. Archimedes would have understood.
This week’s discovery is the second time in as many years that a fundamental theory in physics had been validated. In 2012 researchers at the CERN particle collider found the Higgs boson, the elementary particle whose existence was necessary to the so-called standard model of particle physics. The boson is named after British physicist Peter Higgs who, along with Belgium’s François Englert and other physicists, first proposed its existence in the early 1960s. They had to wait nearly 50 years for technology to catch up to their imaginations.
We live in an age when science is supposed to be practical, and too often is political. This week’s findings likely won’t make for a better smartphone or a faster computer chip next year. Nor will they tell us what the temperature will be in a decade or a century. Thank goodness—or God—that there are still pockets of academia that are about the wonder of it all, irrespective of race, class and gender.
This cosmic scoop is also a reminder that our greatest discoveries come from rationality, observation, experiment and, above all, the freedom of inquiry. The task for those of us not peering into the heavens is to sustain a world friendly to those who do.