The Big Bang theory is not new or controversial. The scientific consensus for it is nearly, well, universal.
When cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered in 1964 by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, the Big Bang theory got one of its biggest boosts. Penzias and Wilson were bothered by some microwave buzzing and couldn't get rid of it. Then it dawned on them that the static was coming from space.
Terry Richardson, who lectures on physics and astronomy at the College of Charleston, has been following these developments since the 1960s, when Penzias and Wilson gave researchers a tool to measure other aspects of the universe.
The just-announced findings by John M. Kovac and his colleagues at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are very exciting, Richardson said. They open the doors wide to further study that will shed new light on the mysteries of the universe.
Background radiation is the residue of the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. And astrophysicists such as Kovac have been using it to make their calculations, including this latest evidence bolstering the "inflation theory" of Alan Guth. Kovac and his team discovered evidence of gravitational waves, ripples in the space-time continuum.
The ripples, Richardson explained, are a consequence of fluctuating matter that is more dense in places and spread apart in other places. "And those compressions move, so that area of compaction will have moved through space," he said. "That's the kind of thing they're talking about."
What's new - and stunning - about this latest discovery, is that the universe is likely much bigger that the biggest minds ever could have imagined.
"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," Dennis Overbye wrote in The New York Times.
Richardson said the new evidence will allow researchers to use mathematical models of the universe to match (or contradict) various theories. This ability to measure aspects of the cosmos is relatively new, he said.
"It's in the last 10 years we've started to be able to do this," Richardson said. "With better and better data we can do it better. We've really entered an era where cosmology is a data-driven part of astronomy rather than just a speculative part, as it had been."