I study the structure and origin of the universe. While this might seem to be a subject more suited to a philosopher than a physicist, an array of amazing new techniques in astronomy have opened an unprecedented window onto the nature of the first moments of time. Robotic telescopes have made possible surveys which are in the process of creating the first three-dimensional maps of the universe on scales of billions of light years. Super-cold satellite detectors in orbits beyond the moon are making high-precision measurements of patterns in the faint glow of light left over from the Big Bang, called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Hidden in these patterns of light and matter are clues to the nature of the universe at its very beginning, in the hot, dense soup of the Big Bang. To understand the conditions near the Big Bang, we must understand physics at extreme energies.These conditions are studied in particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider, which is currently in operation in Geneva, Switzerland. Motivated by particle physics, the leading theory of the very early universe is known as inflation. Inflation proposes that about a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the beginning of time, the universe underwent a period of geometrically multiplying expansion, so rapid that “virtual” particles were ripped out of the quantum vacuum of empty space and pulled apart faster than the speed of light. These quantum fluctuations in the earliest moments of the universe left behind echoes which we can measure today in the patterns of galaxies in space, and in the light left over from the Big Bang. This new cosmology is a bridge between the Outer Space of stars and galaxies, and the Inner Space of fundamental particles and forces.
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