See Inside November 2007

The Great Cosmic Roller-Coaster Ride

Could cosmic inflation be a sign that our universe is embedded in a far vaster realm?

Going for a Ride

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the announcement that the universe is expanding at an ever quickening pace, driven by some unidentified constituent known as dark energy. Most cosmologists think that an even faster period of accelerated expansion, known as inflation, also occurred long before atoms, let alone galaxies, came into being. The universe's temperature shortly after this early inflationary period was billions of times higher than any yet observed on Earth. Cosmologists and elementary particle physicists find themselves making common cause to try to learn the fundamental laws of physics at such high temperatures. This cross-fertilization of ideas is stimulating a thorough rethinking of the early universe in terms of string theory.

The concept of inflation emerged to explain a number of simple yet puzzling observations. Many of these involve the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR), a fossil relic of the hot early universe. For instance, the CMBR reveals that our early universe was almost perfectly uniform--which is strange because none of the usual processes that homogenize matter (such as fluid flow) would have had time to operate. In the early 1980s Alan H. Guth, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that an extremely rapid period of expansion could account for this homogeneity. Such an accelerating expansion diluted any preexisting matter and smoothed out deviations in density [see The Inflationary Universe, by Alan H. Guth and Paul J. Steinhardt; Scientific American, May 1984, and The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe, by Andrei Linde; Scientific American, November 1994].

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