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A big deal for the Big Bang

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The sun sets behind the BICEP2 telescope, foreground, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. In the faint glowing remains of the Big Bang, scientists found

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The sun sets behind the BICEP2 telescope, foreground, and the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica. In the faint glowing remains of the Big Bang, scientists found "smoking gun" evidence that the universe began with a split-second of astonishingly rapid growth from a seed far smaller than an atom. To find a pattern of polarization in the faint light left over from the Big Bang, astronomers scanned about 2 percent of the sky for three years with the BICEP2 at the South Pole, chosen for its very dry air to aid in the observations, said the leader of the collaboration, John Kovac of Harvard.

No one was around 14 billion years ago when all of existence was compressed into a single point so small that it would not have been visible to the human eye.

Most scientists believe that pressure within this single dot built to such an extent that, when it exploded, the resulting wave of super-heated particles spread out like a hot, dense soup trillions of times hotter than anything that can be manufactured on Earth. Space, time and the laws of physics came into existence after the Big Bang.

It took roughly 380,000 years for the hot particles from that primordial explosion to cool down enough to form atoms, the building blocks for everything from dust to stars and galaxies. Planets began to form from the gas and dust that circled the stars a few billion years later.

Flash forward to the 21st century, and scientists who have been working together for three years and using a telescope at the South Pole to look for a specific pattern of light waves within the faint microwave glow left from the Big Bang announced Monday that they’ve uncovered evidence of this cosmic expansion.

Researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are confident that they have spotted ripples in the fabric of the cosmos that followed the Big Bang.

Like all big scientific claims, it has to be confirmed by other teams of scientists following their methodology. If it turns out to be correct, as many suspect it will, it will be celebrated as one of the most momentous discoveries in astronomy.

Even so, finding evidence of what happened a split second after the Big Bang doesn’t mean that there are not other big questions to be answered. Humans have only begun to understand the nature of the universe. This discovery represents the first step in a long march to understanding far more.

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