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See Inside April 2011

The Inflation Debate

Is the theory at the heart of modern cosmology deeply flawed?



Illustrations by Malcolm Godwin

Thirty years ago Alan H. Guth, then a struggling physics postdoc at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, gave a series of seminars in which he introduced “inflation” into the lexicon of cosmology. The term refers to a brief burst of hyperaccelerated expansion that, he argued, may have occurred during the first instants after the big bang. One of these seminars took place at Harvard University, where I myself was a postdoc. I was immediately captivated by the idea, and I have been thinking about it almost every day since. Many of my colleagues working in astrophysics, gravitational physics and particle physics have been similarly engrossed. To this day the development and testing of the inflationary theory of the universe is one of the most active and successful areas of scientific investigation.

Its raison d’être is to fill a gap in the original big bang theory. The basic idea of the big bang is that the universe has been slowly expanding and cooling ever since it began some 13.7 billion years ago. This process of expansion and cooling explains many of the detailed features of the universe seen today, but with a catch: the universe had to start off with certain properties. For instance, it had to be extremely uniform, with only extremely tiny variations in the distribution of matter and energy. Also, the universe had to be geometrically flat, meaning that curves and warps in the fabric of space did not bend the paths of light rays and moving objects.

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