Illustration by Michael Hoeweler for TIME
April 23, 2014 6:00 PM EDT

Some 14 billion years ago, a violent burst of antigravity drove space to expand at a blistering rate that momentarily exceeded the speed of light. Or at least that’s what happened according to the so-called inflationary theory. But is the theory right? If the results announced in March by a team headed by John Kovac of the Harvard-­Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics hold up, we’ll have the most convincing confirmation yet. Kovac’s experiment involved observations of what’s known as microwave background radiation, in search of ripples in space-time called gravitational waves, which inflationary theory predicts. Kovac and his team report detecting the ripples through an iconic swirling pattern in the microwave radiation, which may provide the smoking gun for the inflationary model. We theorists were bowled over. If the results are confirmed, they will join a handful of breakthroughs over the past century that have profoundly shaped our understanding of how the universe began.

Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University and the author of numerous books

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