Cosmologists are calling it one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science—the detection of ripples in space-time that support our theory of how the universe began. If confirmed, the discovery would shed new light on the early moments of our universe, and our understanding of space, time and the cosmos. The announcement is the culmination of a multi-university team effort, backed in part by some prominent foundations.
Scientists tend to choose their words carefully when it comes to big discoveries, but the announcement today that the BICEP2 research collaboration detected direct evidence of the so-called "cosmic inflation" theory of the Big Bang has the community downright giddy.
"The implications for this detection stagger the mind. We are measuring a signal that comes from the dawn of time," said CalTech physics professor Jamie Bock, co-leader of the study.
In short, the scientists announced that they discovered ripples in the fabric of space-time that back up an otherwise speculative theory that the universe expanded very rapidly, faster than the speed of light, at the very beginning of the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago. The evidence fills in crucial gaps in the theory of general relativity, quantum mechanics, and our understanding of the origins of the universe.
And while onlookers are waiting for confirmation before jumping up and down, the team is highly respected, and their work already being hailed as a breakthrough. The project has been a true collaboration, of researchers, universities, nations, public and private funds.
Based at the South Pole—where the cold, thin air makes it the ideal spot to gaze out at the universe—the team has been using high-powered radio telescopes to scan the sky for faint cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang. The study is part of a series of experiments called the BICEP and Keck Array, using increasingly powerful telescopes that started operating at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2006.
While a series of National Science Foundation and Jet Propulsion Laboratory grants funded the collaboration, foundations did play some key roles in making the BICEP and Keck Array experiments possible.
If part of that name looks familiar, yes, the Keck Array is named for the W.M. Keck Foundation, which ponied up funds for a key part of the equipment. Back in 2008, the funder awarded $2.3 million to Caltech, one of the main schools in the collaboration, to build a suite of telescopes that ran in coordination with the BICEP2 telescope, which yielded the cosmic inflation discovery.
The W.M. Keck Foundation is one of the largest science funders in the country, with a $1 billion endowment stemming from the fortunes of the Superior Oil Company, and annual giving at around $50 million. Its two main science programs are Science and Engineering and Medical Research. The funder puts a big emphasis on optics, including support for the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Grants are very large and aim for transformative, high-risk research. The risk paid off this time. (Read our profile on Keck here.)
The other big private funder involved is another major player in telescopes—Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. One of Moore's biggest initiatives is the massive Thirty Meter Telescope, a project of University of California and Caltech. But back in 2005, the foundation gave $2.25 million to develop ultra-sensitive detector arrays used in the South Pole project. (Read our profile of the Moore Foundation here.)
Finally, how could a big discovery come to light without the name Fred Kavli appearing in the mix? We've written at length about the impact of the Kavli Foundation's science centers. In this case, a number of researchers on the team are affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, including principal investigator Chao-Lin Kuo based at Stanford. (Read more about Kavli here.)
More amazing stories will no doubt come to light as we learn about this team's amazing work. But one clear theme behind the breakthrough is that of collaboration—between many brilliant scientists and students, academia, the public sector, and private philanthropy.