Researchers have measured the minute gravitational distortions in polarized radiation from the early universe and discovered that these ancient microwaves can provide a cosmological test of Einstein's theory of general relativity.
These measurements have the potential to narrow down the estimates for the mass of ghostly subatomic particles known as neutrinos.
The radiation could even provide physicists with clues to another outstanding problem about our universe: how the invisible "dark matter" and "dark energy," which has been undetectable through modern telescopes, may be distributed throughout the universe.
The UC San Diego scientists measured variations in the polarization of microwaves emanating from the Cosmic Microwave Background--or CMB--of the early universe.
Like polarized light (which vibrates in one direction and is produced by the scattering of visible light off the surface of the ocean, for example), the polarized "B-mode" microwaves the scientists discovered were produced when CMB radiation from the early universe scattered off electrons 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when the cosmos cooled enough to allow protons and electrons to combine into atoms.
Astronomers had hoped the unique B-mode polarization signature from the early cosmos would allow them to effective "see" portions of the universe that are invisible to optical telescopes as gravity from denser portions of the universe tug on the polarized light, slightly deflecting its passage through the cosmos during its 13.8 billion year trip to Earth.
Through a process called "weak gravitational lensing," the distortions in the B-mode polarization pattern, they hoped, would allow astronomers to map regions of the universe filled with invisible "dark matter" and "dark energy" and well as provide a test for general relativity on cosmological scales.
The recent discovery confirms both hunches. By measuring the CMB polarization data provided by POLARBEAR, a collaboration of astronomers working on a telescope in the high-altitude desert of northern Chile designed specifically to detect "B-mode" polarization, the UC San Diego astrophysicists discovered weak gravitational lensing in their data that, they conclude, permit astronomers to make detailed maps of the structure of the universe, constrain estimates of neutrino mass and provide a firm test for general relativity.
The findings are set to be published in the journal Physical Review Letters.