I’m a bit surprised this hasn’t gotten a bit more attention in the media than it has (and, it has gotten a fair bit of attention), but one of the biggest physics discoveries in a while happened recently, and the data behind the discovery was collected down here at South Pole.
Aside from living and “doing science” here, I’m probably a little biased after spending a bit of time with folks working on the Keck Array over the summer, which is the new and improved version of BICEP2. The Keck Array is essentially five BICEP2 telescopes put together on the same mount – one of the five actually contains the BICEP2 sensor. I’ve posted some pictures of the Keck Array before, here.
These telescopes are looking at the Cosmic Microwave Background, CMB, and specifically at how the CMB is polarised. There are certain patterns in CMB polarisation that are predicted for various models of how the universe formed, and BICEP2 confirmed that the patterns we see match with an inflationary model to a very high confidence level. That particular model includes gravitational waves, which have been theorised, but not observed before.
The main paper is available on arxiv, and it’s a good read, as these things go. To summarise, I’ll shamelessly paste my favourite plot here:
Essentially, the dashed red line is the result from a simulation of what we would see if the universe formed following an inflationary model, and the dots are experiment results. Solid black dots are the BICEP2 results being presented, Xs are results from BICEP1, and asterisks are preliminary results from the Keck Array. For the results being presented, the important bit is mainly to the left of the plot – the bump is caused by gravitational waves.