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Proving Inflation?

Posted by tigerhawkvok on May 04, 2009 19:48 in physics , astronomy , IYA

A quick little news snippet from Science: The ESA's new satelitte, Planck, is due to launch on 5/14/09 and will take up the mantle of COBE and WMAP. However, in addition to just improving measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background, Planck will also possibly prove inflationary theory.

The nuts-and-bolts of inflation say that, in the early early universe, an inversion of the Higgs field resulted in spacetime expanding at superluminal velocities and rapidly slowed down. This explains the flatness of space, the lack of magnetic monopoles, and perhaps the most importantly the uniform temperature of space. This could mean that parts of space no longer causally connected once were, and thus had time to reach a thermal equilibrium before expanding apart.

As a side-effect of inflationary theory, though, we expect to see B-mode polarization of the CMB (that is, polarization of the magnetic field). To quote the article:

But the prize quarry for Planck researchers is the B modes. These features are swirls in the CMB polarization mapped across the sky, and spotting them would essentially clinch the case for the mind-bending theory of inflation.
[...]
Although inflation fits the facts so far, researchers do not yet have direct proof that it occurred. The B modes would provide that. Current theory predicts that inflation should have generated gravitational waves and that those waves should have left lingering swirls in the polarization of the CMB.

The polarization may not be strong enough for Planck to detect, but with luck, they will be — and 45 years after the discovery of the CMB, and 30 years after the proposal of inflation, we might finally have an answer.

DOI: 10.1126/science.324_584b

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