Monthly Archives: April 2014


Confirming inflation would mean that the universe we see, extending 14 billion light-years in space with its hundreds of billions of galaxies, is only an infinitesimal patch in a larger cosmos whose extent, architecture and fate are unknowable. Moreover, beyond our own universe there might be an endless number of other universes bubbling into frothy eternity, like a pot of pasta water boiling over.

‘As Big as It Gets’

In our own universe, it would serve as a window into the forces operating at energies forever beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth and yield new insights into gravity itself. Dr. Kovac’s ripples would be the first direct observation of gravitational waves, which, according to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, should ruffle space-time.

Marc Kamionkowski of Johns Hopkins University, an early-universe expert who was not part of the team, said, “This is huge, as big as it gets.”

He continued, “This is a signal from the very earliest universe, sending a telegram encoded in gravitational waves.”

The ripples manifested themselves as faint spiral patterns in a bath of microwave radiation that permeates space and preserves a picture of the universe when it was 380,000 years old and as hot as the surface of the sun.

Dr. Kovac and his collaborators, working in an experiment known as Bicep, for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization, reported their results in a scientific briefing at the Center for Astrophysics here on Monday and in a set of papers submitted to The Astrophysical Journal.

Dr. Kovac said the chance that the results were a fluke was only one in 10 million.

Dr. Guth, now 67, pronounced himself “bowled over,” saying he had not expected such a definite confirmation in his lifetime.

“With nature, you have to be lucky,” he said. “Apparently we have been lucky.”

The results are the closely guarded distillation of three years’ worth of observations and analysis. Eschewing email for fear of a leak, Dr. Kovac personally delivered drafts of his work to a select few, meeting with Dr. Guth, who is now a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (as is his son, Larry, who was sleeping that night in 1979), in his office last week.

“It was a very special moment, and one we took very seriously as scientists,” said Dr. Kovac, who chose his words as carefully as he tended his radio telescopes.

Andrei Linde of Stanford, a prolific theorist who first described the most popular variant of inflation, known as chaotic inflation, in 1983, was about to go on vacation in the Caribbean last week when Chao-Lin Kuo, a Stanford colleague and a member of Dr. Kovac’s team, knocked on his door with a bottle of Champagne to tell him the news.



CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — One night late in 1979, an itinerant young physicist named Alan Guth, with a new son and a year’s appointment at Stanford, stayed up late with his notebook and equations, venturing far beyond the world of known physics.

He was trying to understand why there was no trace of some exotic particles that should have been created in the Big Bang. Instead he discovered what might have made the universe bang to begin with. A potential hitch in the presumed course of cosmic evolution could have infused space itself with a special energy that exerted a repulsive force, causing the universe to swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant.

If true, the rapid engorgement would solve paradoxes like why the heavens look uniform from pole to pole and not like a jagged, warped mess. The enormous ballooning would iron out all the wrinkles and irregularities. Those particles were not missing, but would be diluted beyond detection, like spit in the ocean.

“SPECTACULAR REALIZATION,” Dr. Guth wrote across the top of the page and drew a double box around it.

On Monday, Dr. Guth’s starship came in. Radio astronomers reported that they had seen the beginning of the Big Bang, and that his hypothesis, known undramatically as inflation, looked right.

Reaching back across 13.8 billion years to the first sliver of cosmic timewith telescopes at the South Pole, a team of astronomers led by John M. Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics detected ripples in the fabric of space-time — so-called gravitational waves — the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. They are the long-sought smoking-gun evidence of inflation, proof, Dr. Kovac and his colleagues say, that Dr. Guth was correct.

Inflation has been the workhorse of cosmology for 35 years, though many, including Dr. Guth, wondered whether it could ever be proved.

If corroborated, Dr. Kovac’s work will stand as a landmark in science comparable to the recent discovery of dark energy pushing the universe apart, or of the Big Bang itself. It would open vast realms of time and space and energy to science and speculation.

THE UNIVERSE  is just under 14 billion years old. From our position in the Milky Way galaxy, we can observe a sphere that is now about 92 billion light-years across. But there’s a mystery. Wherever we look, the universe has an even temperature.

NOT ENOUGH TIME  The universe is not old enough for light to have traveled the vast distance from one side of the universe to the other, and there has not been enough time for scattered patches of hot and cold to mix into an even temperature.

DISTANT COFFEE  At a smaller scale, imagine using a telescope to look a mile in one direction. You see a coffee cup, and from the amount of steam, you can estimate its temperature and how much it has cooled.

COFFEE EVERYWHERE  Now turn around and look a mile in the other direction. You see a similar coffee cup, at exactly the same temperature. Coincidence? Maybe. But if you see a similar cup in every direction, you might want to look for another explanation.

STILL NOT ENOUGH TIME  There has not been enough time to carry coffee cups from place to place before they get cold. But if all the coffee cups were somehow filled from a single coffee pot, all at the same time, that might explain their even temperature.

INFLATION  solves this problem. The theory proposes that, less than a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light. Tiny ripples in the violently expanding energy field eventually grew into the large-scale structures of the universe.

FLUCTUATION  Astronomers have now detected evidence of these ancient fluctuations in swirls of polarized light in the cosmic background radiation, which is energy left over from the early universe. These are gravitational waves predicted by Einstein.

EXPANSION  Returning to our coffee, imagine a single, central pot expanding faster than light and cooling to an even temperature as it expands. That is something like inflation. And the structure of the universe mirrors the froth and foam of the original pot.


Jill Davies, Research Programme Manager at the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities: 

“Over the past few weeks, a comedian has sparked outrage following his use of a word that is detrimental to those with Down’s Syndrome. Terms that refer to disability or mental illness are commonly misused and misinterpreted in society. Whereas someone might argue that calling a socially awkward colleague at work “autistic” is meant as a joke, the misuse of such words can confuse conditions that are widely misunderstood and stigmatised. We are glad that society has moved on from a fear of mentioning clinical diagnoses at all, but if a word referring to a disability or mental health condition is applied to mean something unpleasant, or abusive, then it further promotes the stigma and discrimination that many people are unacceptably subjected to in their everyday lives.

But the problem doesn’t stop there; verbal abuse is also at the root of all disability and mental health related hate crime. Mencap reported that 90% of people with a learning disability have experienced harassment and bullying, with 32% saying that this bullying was taking place on a daily or weekly basis. Furthermore, Mind reported that 71% of those with mental health issues had been a victim of crime in the past two years, with 41% experiencing on-going bullying.

In the Daily Mirror last week, Ann Mathews, a mother to her 20 year old son who has Down’s Syndrome, pleaded to all public figures to “please think about what you’re saying. You might think it’s harmless, you may think it’s funny. But I promise you, for those on the receiving end of your jokes, it is anything but.”

With this in mind, the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities has teamed up with Lemos & Crane for a three-year project called Voice and Community. The project will identify and explore people with learning disabilities’ experiences of harassment and evaluate how organisations and practitioners who provide services in the community can best work to support victims of harassment and respond to and prevent incidents. The aim is to develop practical resources to help practitioners support people who experience harassment, respond to incidents of abuse in collaboration with other agencies, and deliver community-based prevention strategies.

This idea of ‘community’ is fundamental to reducing incidents of hate crime, stigma and discrimination. Not only were disability groups and charities outraged at the comedian’s choice of language, but the public were too, and it is vital that we harness this society-wide support in our continuing work to stop the stigma, discrimination and hate crime that society’s most vulnerable people are subjected to every day as a result of their disability or mental illness.”

The real question however in mind min is how much of mental illness is preventable?

Rather than finding solutions for the symptoms we should investigate the origins and much like the link between spina bifidda and folic acid – accept the fact that our actions have consequences. Our genes hold secrets to the well being of our children. Conscious living means accepting our short comings yes but these must never hold others back. To widen the lens in this case will mean preventing human suffering rather than tending to it once it has set in.