Proof of Big Bang Seen by Space Probe, Scientists Say

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"I think we now have crossed a threshold," said team member David Spergel of Princeton University in New Jersey. "We can now start to say something quite interesting about the physics of inflation."

Andrei Linde, a cosmologist at California's Stanford University and one of the founders of inflation theory, agrees.

"Theorists sometimes believe we are so smart—[that] nobody can be compared to us," he said in a telephone interview from Moscow. "But these experimentalists [such as the WMAP team], they can sometimes do things that look like science fiction to us."

WMAP has also for the first time mapped the big bang afterglow's polarization. "That's our big step forward," Spergel said.

Polarization is when light—which normally radiates out randomly from its source—encounters something, such as a shiny surface or fog, that causes it to assume a particular orientation.

The patterns of polarization in the newborn universe—shown as white bars on this map—provide clues that dramatically improve scientists' ability to determine the dates of key events, the team said.

Riddles Remain

The probe's high-definition data also reaffirm some long-standing riddles.

Certain features in the microwave "sky" look to some experts like statistical anomalies, and WMAP's new data make them even more conspicuous.

Some of the anomalies seem to "very oddly line up with the geometry of the solar system," said Glenn Starkman of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

For example, some groups of anomalies seem to be pointing in one direction. But this idea runs counter to the accepted principle that the cosmos has no preferred orientation (whereas Earth, for example, is governed by its magnetic field, which gives rise to the directions of the compass).

Joao Magueijo of Imperial College London said, "We expect everything to be more or less the same in every direction."

Still others believe that the statistical anomalies are in the eye of the beholder.

"Are those features telling you something physical and important, or are those features just random? That, I think, remains an open question that will be a subject of debate," Spergel said.

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