The Power of Curiosity

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Science  02 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6183, pp. 449
DOI: 10.1126/science.1255182

In March of 2014, 47 scientists from 15 institutions (including my own) announced that a South Pole–based microwave telescope had taken us back to a time when the universe was 10−38 seconds old—when everything that we can see today occupied a space much smaller than that occupied by a proton, and when the energy level of the universe was a trillion times greater than that produced by the world's most powerful accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Assuming that this amazing discovery by the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2) collaboration is confirmed, this cosmic remnant beats the previous record holder for earliest fossil of our cosmic birth (the helium and deuterium made when the universe was seconds old) by 38 orders of magnitude. Rarely has science advanced by such a giant leap, and it will take us years if not decades to fully comprehend all the implications of this incredible moment in science. Although we are used to cosmology stunning us with beautiful images and mind-stretching discoveries such as dark energy and dark matter, even this cosmologist with almost 40 years of experience was awed and shocked by this big, big find.


According to the standard cosmological model, during its earliest moments, the universe underwent a tremendous growth spurt known as inflation, which created the seeds of galaxies and all other cosmic structures from subatomic quantum fluctuations. Since 1992, measurements of the cosmic microwave background have amassed evidence for this theory, but the BICEP2 telescope may have found the smoking gun: gravitational waves that began as quantum fluctuations in spacetime and left an imprint on the cosmic microwave background in the tiny signal (about 100 nanokelvins) detected by the BICEP2 telescope.

Because of deep and remarkable connections between quarks and the cosmos, this cosmic discovery is related to another big discovery, the Higgs boson. The Higgs, the first of a new class of elementary particles (scalar bosons), accounts for why some elementary particles have mass. The potential instigator of cosmic inflation is a hypothetical scalar boson called the inflaton, and the Higgs discovery boosted its credibility and may even explain how it fits in. Conversely, the BICEP2 discovery has given us a window on the highest energies that particle theorists can imagine, and in doing so, will provide insights into how the fundamental forces and particles are unified.

There are differences between the BICEP2 and Higgs discoveries to be sure, in technique and scale of effort, but both are exemplars of the kind of curiosity-driven science that gets scientists out of bed in the morning and inspires young people to careers in science by asking some of the deepest questions about how the universe began and the events that have shaped our existence. BICEP2 and the Higgs will launch the careers of thousands of new scientists around the world, just as quarks and quasars sparked my career. But we should not forget that great discoveries can have unforeseen practical benefits as well. Some 100 years ago, the discovery of strange new phenomena began the esoteric study of quantum mechanics, with no hint of a practical benefit. The exploitation of these quantum phenomena has enabled the information age that now underpins our economy and way of life.

Whether the fruits of our curiosity are bettering our existence on Earth or our understanding of our place in the cosmos, it all begins with a burning desire to know. The BICEP2 and Higgs discoveries remind us never to underestimate the power of this curiosity, one of humankind's greatest assets.

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