TIME Physics

Why LED Lights Won the Nobel Prize

Chances are you're using an LED right now

You might have heard that researchers, two Japanese and one American, recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but you might not know what LEDs are and why they’re important. With energy-saving light bulbs becoming more commonplace and smartphone use as widespread as ever, there might be more LEDs in your life than you realize.

TIME Physics

This Discovery Brings Us One Step Closer to Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak

Handout photo of cloaking device using four lenses developed by University of Rochester physics professor Howell and graduate student Choi is demonstrated in Rochester
A cloaking device using four lenses developed by University of Rochester physics professor John Howell and graduate student Joseph Choi is demonstrated in Rochester, New York on Sept. 11, 2014. Reuters

It's like a very small invisibility cloak made of glass

Researchers at the University of Rochester seem to be taking the words of science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s to heart: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Inspired in part by the famous Invisibility Cloak from Harry Potter, scientists at Rochester have discovered new ways to use complex lenses to hide objects from view. While previous cloaking devices distort the background and make it apparent that an object is being cloaked, the four lenses used at Rochester keep an object hidden as the viewer moves up to several degrees away.

“This is the first device that we know of that can do three-dimensional, continuously multidirectional cloaking, which works for transmitting rays in the visible spectrum,” said Joseph Choi, a PhD student at Rochester’s Institute of Optics who is working with physics professor John Howell at the university.

While the lenses do truly disguise the image of an object, scientists aren’t claiming a suit-sized version of the lens will work, much less help its wearers sneak past Death Eaters or into a Room of Requirement.

But there are practical uses for the technology: Howell says that the lenses could help a surgeon “look through his hands to what he is actually operating on,” and the lenses could be applied to a truck to allow drivers to see through blind spots on their vehicles.

Here’s a video that shows in more detail how the lenses work:

 

TIME Books

See an Exclusive ‘Self-Portrait’ From the Creator of XKCD

XKCD Creator Randall Munroe
Munroe has fun with the formulas for angular momentum of a spinning object (top) and centripetal force (bottom). Randall Munroe for TIME

The webcomic's science series, What If?, is now a book

For the past two years, xkcd creator Randall Munroe has been answering fantastical science questions for his popular webcomic’s sister site, What If?. In the new issue of TIME, Munroe talks about turning the project into a book (What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, hitting shelves Sept. 2) and how he conducts his investigations into topics like jetpacks and dinosaur nutrition.

“I try to be entertaining in the way I share them, but my real motivation with each question is that I want to know the answer,” Munroe says. “Once a question gets into my head, it will keep bugging me until I figure out the answer, whether I’m writing an article about it or not.”

Though Munroe says he uses stick-figures for xkcd and What If? because he’s “not very good at drawing,” we asked him to draw a self-portrait anyway — at least, as much of a self-portrait as you can get using only stick-figures. In the exclusive illustration above, also on newsstands now, Munroe has fun with the formulas for angular momentum of a spinning object (top) and centripetal force (bottom).

TIME Physics

Supersonic Submarines Just Took One Step Closer to Reality

That would make San Francisco to Shanghai in two hours a possibility

Chinese scientists say there could one day be a high-tech submarine that crosses the Pacific Ocean in less time than it takes to watch a movie, the South China Morning Post reports.

Researchers at the Harbin Institute of Technology, in northeast China, have made dramatic improvements to a Soviet-era military technology called supercavitation that allows submersibles to travel at high speeds, the Post says.

Supercavitation envelops a submerged vessel inside an air bubble to minimize friction. It enabled the Russian Shakval torpedo to reach speeds of 230 m.p.h. — but theoretically, a supercavitated vessel, given sufficient power at launch, could reach the speed of sound (some 3,603 m.p.h.). That would mean crossing the 6,000-odd miles from San Francisco to Shanghai in just two hours.

One of the problems of supercavitation has been how to steer a vessel at such speeds. The Harbin scientists say they could have the answer.

According to the Post, they’ve developed a way of allowing a supercavitated vessel to shower itself with liquid while traveling inside its own air bubble. The liquid creates a membrane on the surface of the vessel, and by manipulating this membrane, the degree of friction applied to different areas of the vessel could be controlled, which would enable steering.

“We are very excited by its potential,” said Li Fengchen, professor of fluid machinery and engineering at the Harbin Institute’s complex flow and heat transfer lab. “By combining liquid-membrane technology with supercavitation, we can significantly reduce the launch challenges and make cruising control easier,” he told the Post.

Li stressed, however, that many technical problems needed to be solved before supersonic submarine travel could take place.

[SCMP]

TIME Design

WATCH: The Science Behind the World’s Biggest Wooden Roller Coaster

Whether you can't get enough of them or can't go near them, roller coasters rely on some pretty nifty tricks of physics and design.

Your brain wants nothing to do with roller coasters—and for a wonderfully simple reason: your brain would very much like you to stay alive. So anything that’s designed to haul you up to the top of a very steep incline, drop you straight down, very fast, and repeat that process over and over again for a minute or two is something that elicits a simple, highly adaptive response in you—which pretty much involves running away.

That, at least, is how it’s supposed to work, but your entire brain isn’t in on the game. There are also thrill-seeking parts, adventurous parts, parts that like the adrenaline and serotonin and endorphin kicks that come from roller coasters. So while millions of people avoid the things, at least as many millions swarm to them, looking for ever bigger, scarier rides and ever bigger, better thrills. This summer they’ll get their wish, thanks to the opening of the appropriately named Goliath roller coaster, the biggest and fastest wooden coaster ever built, which just took its inaugural runs at the Six Flags Great America amusement park in Gurnee, Ill., about 50 miles north of Chicago.

Goliath is destined to be a tourist magnet, a cultural icon—at least until another, even bigger one comes along—and a lot of fun for a lot of people. But it’s also a feat of engineering and basic physics. And if you’re the kind of person who enjoys that sort of thing while hating the idea of actually ever riding on roller coasters—the kind of person I’ll describe as “me,” for example—there’s a lot to like about Goliath.

Modern roller coasters typically come in two varieties, wooden ones and steel ones—known unimaginatively if unavoidably as “woodies” and “steelies”—and coaster lovers debate their merits the way fans of the National and American Leagues debate the designated hitter rule.

Steelie partisans like the corkscrews and loop-the-loops made possible by the coasters’ bent-pipe architecture. Woodie fans prefer the old school clack-clack and the aesthetics of the entire structure. What’s more, plunging into and soaring through all the wooden bracing and strutwork necessary to keep the thing standing increases the sensation of speed because stationary objects that are close to you when you’re moving at high speed seem to whiz past so fast they blur. Steelies leave you more or less moving through open space, and that eliminates the illusion.

Goliath moves at a top speed of 72 mph, achieving that prodigious feat with the aid of a very simple fuel: gravity. As in all roller coasters, its biggest, steepest drop is the first one, because that’s the only way to generate enough energy to propel you through the rest of the ride—which is made up of steadily shallower hills. In the case of Goliath, that first hill is 180′ tall (55m), or about the equivalent of an 18-story building. The drop is an almost-vertical 85 degrees.

As test pilots and astronauts could tell you, such rising, falling, corkscrewing movement creates all manner of g-force effects. Most of the time we live in a familiar one-g environment. Climb to 2 g’s in a moving vehicle of some kind and you feel a force equivalent to twice your body weight. The maximum g’s Goliath achieves is 3.5. Get on the ride weighing 150 lbs., and for at least a few seconds, you’ll experience what it’s like to weigh 525 lbs.

But g forces can go in the other direction, too. With many roller coasters, the forces bottom out at about 0.2 g’s during downward plunges, meaning your 150 lb. one-g weight plummets to 30 lbs. That can give you a feeling of near-weightlessness. It’s also possible to achieve 0 g in a dive, which is how NASA’s famed “vomit comet” aircraft allow astronauts to practice weightlessness. On the Goliath, things go even further, with riders experiencing a force of minus 1 g.

“That means you’d be coming out of your seat,” says Jake Kilcup, a roller coaster designer and the chief operating officer of Rocky Mountain Construction, which designed and built Goliath. To ensure that that doesn’t happen, the Goliath cars are equipped with both lap bars and seat belts.

Though Goliath is made of wood, it does feature two so-called inversions—or half loops that take you to the top of a climb, then deliberately stall and plunge back down the same way. One includes a “raven turn,” or a twist in the track that turns the cars briefly upside down.

Even this much wouldn’t be possible on a wooden coaster if not for what Rocky Mountain calls its “Topper” track technology—a sort of hybrid of wood and metal. Most of the beams in the Goliath superstructure are made of nine laminated layers of southern yellow pine, steam-bent in stretches that call for curves and then kiln-dried. But the track itself also includes hollow metal rails running the entire 3,100 feet (or nearly a full kilometer) of the ride. The cars all have main wheels that sit on the rails as well smaller upstop and guide wheels that lock the cars to the tracks and keep them going where they’re supposed to.

“The Topper track gives a smoother ride than you get on an all-metal track,” says Kilcip, “and makes the overall roller coaster stronger than an all-wooden one.”

All that technology provides a relatively brief ride—just 87 seconds long, which is not atypical for roller coasters. For plenty of people, that’s way too short—which is what Six Flags is banking on to keep the turnstiles spinning. For plenty of other people, it’s precisely 87 seconds too long. And you know what? I’m not—um, I mean, those people aren’t—the slightest bit ashamed to admit that.

TIME Soccer

Stephen Hawking Calculates England’s Chances of World Cup Success

Science predicts the chances of a first win in almost 50 years

Renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has nailed his colors firmly to the mast ahead of this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.

Applying his scientific mind to the random-number generator that is Association Football, Hawking has pulled data from previous World Cup performances to determine how England can lift its first trophy in almost 50 years. Unfortunately for England fans, however, not many of Hawking’s criteria look likely to be met this summer.

Among other things, he notes that England plays best at lower altitudes (two of its first three matches take place at altitudes close to the highest point in England) and with kick-offs at 3 p.m. (all its group matches start in the evening).

Referring to England’s chances in a penalty shoot out, Hawking added “As we say in science, England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

TIME Television

The Physics of the Game of Thrones “Moon Door”

Game of Thrones: Lysa, Littlefinger
Mind the gap! Helen Sloan / HBO

Would a person really break into pieces after being dropped from the Moon Door?

Spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “Mockingbird” (Season 4, Episode 7) follow

When Game of Thrones fans first met the Moon Door, it was described as an “elegant” solution to the problem of administering justice. When Tyrion Lannister arrived in the Vale and was made to stand trial for his non-crimes, Lysa Arryn explained that those found guilty in her mountainous realm were disposed of via gravity, not swords or ropes. The Moon Door, a hole leading to uncounted feet of air and then the rocky ground below, is the preferred method of execution. (In the books, it’s a standing door with a crescent moon carved into it, but the nothingness is probably more visually effective when the camera is looking down rather than out.)

As Lysa would later explain to Sansa in the episode “Mockingbird,” which aired May 18, people who leave through the Moon Door break apart on the rocks below. Sometimes an intact body part will be found, but the person essentially snaps.

Of course, it was Lysa, not Tyrion or Sansa, who would eventually get to experience that wild ride first hand.

But would Lysa’s death really go down — no pun intended — the way she thinks it would?

Not necessarily, according to Jim Hamilton, who runs the Free Fall Research Page, a compendium of information about falls from great heights. Though we don’t know the exact height of the Moon Door, he says that if it’s more than 2,000 feet up, the faller would reach 125 miles per hour, which means broken bones and near-certain death — but not necessarily breaking into pieces.

“I’ve never actually been asked that question,” Hamilton tells TIME, in response to the query of whether someone in Lysa’s situation would snap apart like a twig. “It would depend on the surface you hit. Maybe if you hit a rocky beach. People who fall into meadows or marshes or sand leave a human-shaped impression on the ground. They almost tend to bounce sometimes. I would think that would be more likely than breaking apart.”

And what about the Moon Door’s “elegance” as an executioner? It turns out that, as unlikely as it sounds, such a fall wouldn’t be a 100% guarantee of death. Hamilton cites the fact that during World War II, for example, there were lots of people falling out of burning airplanes — and, though many of them died, a lucky few survived, often thanks to a combination of factors that slowed their falls. Hamilton’s website chronicles the stories of several such people who survived falls from great heights.

Still, don’t look for a twist wherein Lysa comes limping back. Despite stories of long-odds living, Hamilton says she’s probably done for — even if she’s still in one piece.

TIME Physics

The Mystery of Dark Matter: WIMPS May Have the Answer

At the heart of our galaxy, the WIMPS are at war
At the heart of our galaxy, the WIMPS are at war Pete Saloutos; Getty Images/Image Source

Eighty percent of the universe is utterly invisible, but an exotic dance of mutually annihilating particles may explain it all

It’s a mystery that has haunted astronomers for nearly 80 years now: what is the mysterious dark matter that outweighs ordinary matter—all of the atoms that make up stars, galaxies and clouds in the cosmos—by a factor of four to one? We know with near-certainty that it’s out there because of its powerful gravity. Galaxies spin so fast that they’d fly apart without the massive cocoon of dark matter that surrounds them, pervades them and holds them together.

It’s not that theorists are at a loss for what the dark matter might be: the smart money says it’s a still-undiscovered type of elementary particle, produced in gigantic quantities in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang. So far, however, despite decades of trying, nobody has managed to find anything more than a circumstantial case to back up this notion.

But that may be changing. A team of astrophysicists from a half-dozen top-tier universities and labs say they have evidence from the orbiting Fermi Large Area Telescope that some of the gamma rays emanating from the core of the Milky Way could be produced by dark matter particles colliding with and annihilating one another. The authors acknowledge that plenty of astrophysical processes generate gamma rays, but when you add up all of those known sources, says co-author Dan Hooper, of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Chicago, “there’s a significant excess we can’t explain.” And while that’s far from a smoking gun, dark-matter particles are at the very least a plausible explanation.

Here’s the reasoning: based on their understanding of the Big Bang and what came out of it, physicists are convinced dark matter can’t be made of ordinary quarks, electrons and other standard particles. It has to be something else, and what fits the bill best is a type of particle that responds to only two of the four basic forces of nature—gravity and the weak nuclear force, to be specific. (The other two are the strong force and electromagnetism.)

These bits of exotic stuff, known generically as weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs, and yes, it’s deliberately cute), could come in matter and antimatter versions, like many particles do. Or they could be their own antiparticles, which is permitted by the laws of physics. Either way, if they approached each other closely (as they would in the densely packed heart of the Milky Way), they would annihilate each other, sending out, among other things, a burst of gamma rays that the Fermi telescope could detect.

Not only have gamma rays been spotted, the precise levels the Fermi telescope has detected are just what you’d expect if some of that radiation really is produced by WIMPS engaging in mutual destruction. But that’s where things start to get tricky. Astrophysicists think they know how many gamma rays should be coming from other sources—ordinary particles slamming into other particles, or bursts of energy from the ultra dense stellar corpses known as pulsars—but they’re not certain.

“We believe we understand these things,” says Harvard astrophysicist Doug Finkbeiner, another author, “but there’s always room to make a mistake.” So the new signals could be the result of dark matter, he says, or they could be caused by pulsars making more gamma rays than astronomers think. “Dark-matter people want it to be dark matter,” says Finkbeiner, “but pulsar people want it to be pulsars. And it could also be none of the above, something we haven’t thought of yet.”

Hooper agrees, but he puts a bit more of a positive spin on it. “We’re claiming the detection of anomalous gamma rays, and no more,” he says. “But I haven’t seen any explanations other than dark matter that hold water at this point. This is the first time I’m willing to move from ‘it looks like it might be the signal of dark matter’ to ‘it looks like it is the signal of dark matter,’ and that’s qualitatively different.”

The final verdict won’t be in for some time, though. One way the mystery might be resolved is simply through longer and more thorough observations with the Fermi telescope. “We have only four years’ worth of data,” says Hooper, “but with more time we should have a better sense of what we’re seeing.”

Another way might be via the Large Hadron Collider, which made headlines in 2012 when it found the Higgs Boson, and which has now turned its attention to finding WIMPS, among other things. The nature of dark matter could also be confirmed by one of the underground particle detectors hoping to snag a passing WIMP as it zips through the Earth. Or, it might come from an instrument called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, riding aboard the International Space Station. One way or another, however—unless astrophysicists have been pursuing a total dead end for the past couple of decades, that is—a mystery that has dogged science since Franklin Roosevelt occupied the White House may finally be on the verge of a solution.

TIME The Universe

You Should Care Big Time About the Big Bang News

Big Bang News: Why You Should Care
In the instant after the Big Bang, the universe expanded faster than the speed of light Getty Images

Science doesn't have to be practical—or even entirely fathomable—to be breathtaking

Exactly why do you have to give a hoot about Monday’s landmark announcement that, in a single observation, physicists have given a big boost to the Big Bang? You don’t, actually. It will not change a single thing about your life, the life of anyone you care about or the state of the world. So in some respects, we’re done here.

But in other respects there’s a lot to love.

Science has, in some ways, always been measured by its payoff. Polio vaccine? Hundreds of thousands of children per year spared paralysis or death. Eradication of smallpox? Hundreds of millions of lives saved over the arc of time. The invention of the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the personal computer? World-changers.

But what about the invention of the telescope? It landed Galileo—he of the heliocentric heresy—in a world of hurt, as well it would have by the thinking of the time. Yes, he found the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn, but by showing other worlds in all their non-Earthly complexity, he also blew up the notion of cosmic specialness that had been at the center of our species’ overweening ego for so long. Later generations of telescopes gave us more information we could make no practical use of and that only served to shrink us further, revealing that we are crazily small organisms on a crazily small world and that, on a cosmic scale, our species’ entire time on the stage amounts to little more than the trillionths of a second it took the Higgs Boson to flash out of existence after its celebrated creation in 2012.

And what about that Boson? A couple of years ago we were all aflutter about it, so quick, what did we learn from it? Um, something about mass and particles and energy and blah, blah, blah Einstein (half of these discoveries end up with blah, blah Einstein).

But there was something about the boson that got to us, too. Even if you didn’t pay much attention, you knew that it involved a huge machine creating an unfathomably tiny particle, one that somehow reached all the way back to the Big Bang and helped explain something deeply fundamental. That something had to do with why there is matter in the universe at all. But even if you never got that far, you sensed—just sensed—that this was something that made us, the whole species, better, smarter, just faintly immortal, if only by having transcended our multiple limitations to figure out something very hard.

And so it is with Monday’s announcement, that gravitational waves which, yes, Einstein again, first posited 99 years ago, actually exist—and that they send ripples out across all of spacetime. That, in turn, confirmed that in the first billionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe briefly expanded faster than the speed of light—a speed that’s supposed to be impossible, but in this exceptional case wasn’t. And while it would be nice to understand even more, even that little bit has to leave you feeling gobsmacked.

It’s that way with all thrilling things that make no sense: scaling Mount Everest, breaking the four-minute mile, landing the first man on the moon. Hell, back in 1962, we fiercely defended the greatness of the failed Ranger 4 mission after it crash-landed on the lunar surface but was unable to take even a single picture. Why? Because we had finally put metal on the moon—dead metal to be sure—but we had gotten there and that was enough for the moment.

It’s fine—and vital—to do science that changes lives. But it’s great to also do science that just gets you drunk on the idea that you’re doing it at all, that refracts the universe in a different way, that shows you yourself from the other side of the mirror. You are precisely the same person you were before you had that perspective—and you’re entirely different too.

TIME Cosmology

Cosmic Bulletins: Two Major Discoveries Rock Science

Telescope BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background) in Antarctica, on March 31, 2007.
Telescope BICEP2 (in the foreground) and the South Pole Telescope (in the background) in Antarctica, on March 31, 2007. Steffen Richter—Harvard University/EPA

Nearly a century ago, Einstein came up with the idea of gravitational waves. Now, in a discovery that physicists are calling "extraordinary" and "spectacular," observers at the South Pole have found the first direct evidence they exist

The Theory of General Relativity seemed truly bizarre when Albert Einstein first articulated it 99 years ago: gravity, the great physicist declared, was no longer to be seen as a force, but rather as the warping of “spacetime,” an amalgam of those two formerly independent concepts. The theory also predicted that violent events should trigger gravitational waves, which would set spacetime rippling, like a vat of cosmic jello. There has been some circumstantial evidence of those ripples, involving changes in orbits of binary stars, but what’s always been missing is a smoking gun, direct observational measurement of a gravitational wave.

The same is true of the Inflationary Universe theory, postulated in the 1980s: just .0000000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds (give or take) after the Big Bang, the theory said, the cosmos underwent a burst of expansion so furious that it was briefly flying apart faster than the speed of light. Exceeding light speed is supposed to be impossible, except that that law applies only to something moving through spacetime, not spacetime itself expanding. Just as with gravitational waves, there’s plenty of reason to think it really happened, but again, no proof.

Not until now, anyway. In a discovery physicists are calling “huge,” “extraordinary” and “spectacular,” a team of observers using a microwave-sensitive telescope at the South Pole has found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves—and the strongest proof of inflation to date, all in one shot. “When I got the call,” says Marc Kamionkowski, a theorist at Johns Hopkins University who wasn’t involved in the research, “I had to ask if it was real. To me, this is bigger than the Higgs boson.” If it’s confirmed by other groups, says Avi Loeb, chair of the Harvard astronomy department and also not a participant in the research, “it’s worth a Nobel.”

According to Kamionkowski, one of few physicists allowed to see the scientific paper before it was announced at a press conference today, that confirmation is likelier than not. “These are extremely careful and conservative people,” he says of the team that made the observation. “They’ve had this evidence for three years, looked at every alternative explanation for what they were seeing, and systematically ruled them out one by one.”

For a finding of this enormity, the critical bit of evidence John Kovac of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and his colleagues saw seems entirely innocuous: a slight distortion in microwave radiation left over from the Big Bang. These microwaves didn’t even exist until about 400,000 years after the Big Bang happened, far later than the inflationary scenario—which occurred before the universe had aged even a billionth of a trillionth of a quadrillionth of a second—could have played out. But when the microwaves did pop into existence, the cosmos should have still been jiggling with gravitational waves set off by the violence of the inflation. Spot the jiggles and you prove both the expansionary phenomenon and the existence of the waves left over from it.

That’s what Kovac and his colleagues did, though it wasn’t literally jiggles that they saw. Instead they noticed that the background radiation was polarized, its waves of electromagnetic energy oscillating not in random directions but in just a few specific ones. (Sunlight also oscillates in random directions; polarizing sunglasses work by letting in only the rays within a narrow range of orientations.) That microwave polarization suggests that something was shaking the radiation this way or that.

The telescope the researchers used—the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization 2, or BICEP2, instrument—is tuned to see the critical kind of polarization in background radiation, but there was no guarantee it ever would. Inflation theory comes in several versions, all of which posit different intensities. “In some,” says MIT’s Alan Guth, who was one of the inflationary universe theory’s original inventors, “the waves are so weak they could never be detected. To see them turn up is beautiful.”

What made the gravitational waves—and thus the polarization they caused—so powerful has to do with why the universe inflated in the first place. Physicists like Guth had already theorized that inflation would happen as the cosmos transitioned from one energy state to another, much as water changes to ice. That transition released huge amounts of energy, which turbocharged the already-expanding universe. Also like water, which goes from vapor to liquid to solid, the post-Big Bang universe went through several such transitions, all during the first fraction of a fraction of a second of its life.

The amount of polarization—dictated by the strength of the gravitational waves—suggest that the transition that triggered the high-speed inflation occurred when the universe was at the so-called grand unified scale. That’s the point at which electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force, all of which have vastly different strengths and effects today, were a single force. “It represents about a trillion times the energy scale produced by the Large Hadron Collider,” says Loeb, referring to the world’s biggest accelerator, where the Higgs was found.

The new results, assuming they’re verified, now rule out some of the more complicated, exotic versions of inflation, which seemed favored by cruder measurements made last year by the European Planck satellite. “Some people liked those,” says Guth, “because they got to write complicated papers about them.” But in physics, simpler ideas are usually considered more elegant.

Also ruled out by the detection of gravitational waves, according to both Guth and Loeb, is at least one of the few viable alternatives to the Big Bang. Known as the ekpyrotic universe model, it posits that the cosmic microwaves we’ve been detecting since the 60’s came from the titanic collision between two “branes”—short for membranes—which were independent universes (one of which was ours) floating around in higher-dimensional space.

The new results do have to be verified. Even though the BICEP2 team methodically checked and rechecked its work to rule out any mistakes, nobody, including Kovac and his colleagues, can be 100 percent certain until independent groups, using their own instruments, see the polarization signal too. That shouldn’t take long, given that cosmologists at Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the University of Chicago and more were already in the hunt. “Whether it’s correct or incorrect“ says Kamionkowski, who strongly favors the former, “will be known very quickly.”

Meanwhile, the BICEP2 team has already started taking data with a more powerful telescope called the Keck Array, also at the South Pole, and is hard at work building yet another, called BICEP3, which will begin flexing its muscles next summer. Extraordinary as the new results are, they’re just a taste of the science that will come out of these new instruments. “I’ve made 23 trips to the Pole in my career so far,” says Kovac, “and I’ll be making a lot more.” It’s a long, cold journey—but to understand the first moments of cosmic creation, it’s clearly worth it.

More: The Sights And Sounds Of The Solar System From NASA’s Deep Space Network

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