A New Search for Ripples in Space From the Beginning of Time

The universe burst into existence 13.8 billion years ago. What happened in that earliest moment is of intense interest to anyone trying to understand why everything is the way it is today.

“I think this question of what happens at the beginning of the universe is a profound one,” said David Spergel, president of the Simons Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports research at the frontiers of mathematics and science. “And what is remarkably exciting to me is the fact that we can do observations that can give us insight into this.”

A new $110 million observatory in the high desert of northern Chile, $90 million financed by the foundation, could uncover key clues about what happened after the Big Bang by looking at particles of light that have traveled across the universe since almost the beginning of time.

The data could finally provide compelling corroboration for a fantastical idea known as cosmic inflation. It holds that in the first sliver of time after the universe’s birth, the fabric of space-time accelerated outward to speeds far faster than the speed of light.

Alternatively, the observatory’s measurements could undercut this hypothesis, a pillar in the current understanding of cosmology.

The observatory is named after the foundation and its founders: Jim Simons, the hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist who died on May 10, and his wife, Marilyn, a trained economist. Two of the four telescopes began taking measurements in April, in time for Dr. Simons’s 86th birthday on April 25.

“That was sort of the target that Jim set long ago for project completion,” Dr. Spergel said. “And we got there.”

Perched amid a majestically barren landscape at an altitude of 17,000 feet, the observatory has three small telescopes with a passing resemblance to ice cream cones and a larger one that consists of a pointable box, something that looks like a cousin to a “Star Wars” droid.

The telescopes gather microwaves — wavelengths longer than visible light but shorter than radio waves. Two of the smaller telescopes are already gathering data. The third will join in a few months, and the fourth, much larger, will begin operations next year.

About 60,000 detectors in the four telescopes will then study a cosmic glow of microwaves that fill the universe.

“It’s a unique instrument,” said Suzanne Staggs, a professor of physics at Princeton University and co-director of the Simons Observatory. “We just have so, so many detectors.”

For the first 380,000 years of the universe’s infancy, temperatures were so high that hydrogen atoms could not form, and photons — particles of light — bounced off charged particles, continually absorbed and emitted. But as soon as hydrogen could form, the photons could travel unimpeded. The photons have cooled to just a few degrees above absolute zero, and their wavelengths have stretched into the microwave part of the spectrum.

The cosmic microwave background was first observed half a century ago, a serendipitous hiss picked up by an antenna in Holmdel, N.J.

In the 1990s, a NASA satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer, revealed tiny temperature ripples within the cosmic microwaves — fingerprints pointing to what the early universe looked like. The fluctuations reflected variations in the universe’s density, and the denser regions would later coalesce into galaxies and even larger-scale structures of superclusters of galaxies lining up like a cosmic spider web.

The Simons Observatory aims to tease out yet more details — swirling patterns of polarized light that cosmologists call B-modes — in the microwaves.

Alan Guth, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proposed the idea of cosmic inflation 45 years ago, in part to explain the bland homogeneity of the universe. No matter in what direction you look, no matter how far out you look, everything in the cosmic microwave background looks pretty much the same.

But the observable universe is so large that there is not enough time for a photon to travel all the way across to equalize temperatures everywhere. But a rapid stretching of space-time — inflation — could have accomplished that, even though it would have ended when the universe was less than a trillionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second old.

Current cosmological observations fit with the cosmic inflation picture, said Brian Keating, a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the leaders for the project.

But, Dr. Keating added, “to date, there’s no smoking gun.”

The accelerating expansion would have generated titanic gravitational waves that would have jostled matter in a way that would have imprinted B-modes among the primordial microwave radiation.

“The B-modes, these waves of gravity percolating throughout the cosmos, would be tantamount to the smoke from the gun,” Dr. Keating said.

For the B-modes, the scientists will examine a property of light known as polarization.

Light consists of electric and magnetic fields that oscillate at right angles to each other. Usually, these fields are oriented in random directions, but when light reflects off certain surfaces, the fields can be knocked into alignment, or polarized.

The polarization of light can be studied with a filter, through which only the part of the light polarized in a particular direction will pass. (That’s how polarized sunglasses suppress glare. When sunlight reflects off water, it becomes polarized, similar to how light in the early universe became polarized.)

The detectors at the observatory consist, in essence, of spinning polarizer filters. If the microwaves were unpolarized, then the brightness of the microwaves would remain constant. If they are polarized, then the brightness will rise and fall — brightest when the filter aligns with the polarization, dimmest when the filter is at a right angle to the polarization.

Repeating that measurement across a swath of the sky will reveal the patterns of polarizations.

There are two types of polarization patterns. One is called an E-mode, for electric, because it is the analog of electric fields emanating from a charged particle. Previous microwave observations have detected E-modes in the primordial microwaves, generated by the variations in the universe’s density.

The other polarization pattern possesses a characteristic found in magnetic fields. Because physics uses the letter B as the symbol to designate magnetic fields, it is known as the B-mode.

“They look like swirls,” Dr. Spergel said.

The gravitational waves would have shaken electrons in a way to generate tiny B-modes in the cosmic microwaves.

“Detection, that will be a Nobel Prize,” said Gregory Gabadadze, a professor of physics at New York University and associate director for physics at the Simons Foundation. “Never mind the Nobel Prize. The discovery of such a magnitude, who cares what prize you give it?”

The microwave measurements could uncover other major physics phenomena too, including the masses of ghostly particles known as neutrinos, or identify dark matter, the mysterious particles that account for 85 percent of the mass of the universe.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is for the cosmologists not to fool themselves.

That is what happened a decade ago when scientists working on an experiment known as BICEP2, for Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization, announced that they had found the smoking gun of primordial gravitation waves and cosmic inflation.

But within a year, the claim fell apart. The observed microwaves had come not from the Big Bang and inflation but rather from dust within our Milky Way galaxy.

To avoid repeating that mistake, the Simons Observatory will make its observations at several wavelengths. (BICEP2’s findings relied on only one wavelength.)

One of the telescopes at the Simons Observatory will be devoted to detecting interstellar dust, which radiates at higher temperatures. That signal will then be subtracted, which researchers hope will leave just the cosmic microwave background.

“It’s worth it to us to guard against having a repeat of the fiasco that hurt us before,” Dr. Keating said. “If that would happen again, I don’t think anyone would ever trust this field.”

In the aftermath of the BICEP2 controversies, Dr. Simons convinced competing research groups to work together at the Simons Observatory. “I joke that he basically forced a merger, leveraging his experience in the hedge fund world,” Dr. Keating said.

The Simons Observatory may still fail to find what it is looking for, or the data may be ambiguous. Perhaps spurious emissions from dust will turn out to be a bigger problem than expected, obscuring the primordial B-modes.

“It’s like looking at New York City through a dirty window,” Dr. Keating said. “Nature doesn’t have a contract with us to produce an observable signal.”

Or maybe there are not any B-modes at all. That would delight contrarian cosmologists who dislike the idea of cosmic inflation. One of the seemingly unavoidable consequences of inflation is the multiverse, that the universe continually diverges into an infinity of alternative possibilities.

“Literally, every possible arrangement of matter and space and time and energy occurs somewhere in this cosmic landscape called the multiverse,” Dr. Keating said. “Some people find that very attractive, and other people find it distasteful.”

However, all of the alternatives predict exactly zero B-modes. Thus, a successful detection would rule them out.

“It still wouldn’t prove inflation,” Dr. Keating said, “but it would narrow down the culprits from four or five to one.”

If the Simons Observatory does not detect any B-modes, that would not definitively disprove cosmic inflation. But it would make it harder to twist theoretical models in a way to produce B-modes small enough not to be detectable.

“The inflationary paradigm will be in great trouble,” Dr. Gabadadze said. “The majority will abandon it, and we’ll be looking for alternatives to inflation.”

Indeed, Dr. Keating said Dr. Simons, an eminent mathematician before switching to the world of finance, was among those who would have been happy to see inflation tossed into the trash bin of disproved scientific hypotheses.

“That would then comport with his notion of an eternal cyclical, or bouncing model, for the universe,” Dr. Keating said. But Dr. Simons was also willing to invest the money to find out if he could be proven wrong.

“His real love was in science,” Dr. Keating said.

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