The discovery was accomplished by capturing the first images of gravitational waves, ripples in space-time that were predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
Scientists hailed the finding as a transformative event that will provide deep and complicated questions for physicists to explore as well as transfix the imagination of the broader public, because it gives insight into a foundational question in physics: How did the universe begin?
“This is one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time,” said Max Tegmark, a physicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the work but attended the announcement in a packed auditorium at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It’s just like when something big happens in your personal life and you keep waking up and saying, ‘Whoa!’ I keep having these ‘whoa!’ moments. This is absolutely spectacular.”
The theory of cosmic inflation was proposed by MIT physicist Alan Guth in 1980, because simpler models of the Big Bang could not explain some features of the universe as it appears today, such as its uniformity.
Inflation proposes that there was an initial exponential expansion of the universe caused by a repulsive form of gravity — opposite the normal way of thinking about gravity as an attractive force.
As the universe continues to expand today, “what we see now is still a coasting expansion, originating from the Big Bang,” Guth said in an interview.