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In 1979, theorist Alan Guth, then at Stanford, seized on a potential explanation for some of the lingering mysteries of the universe, such as the remarkable homogeneity of the whole place — the way distantly removed parts of the universe had the same temperature and texture even though they had never been in contact with each other. Perhaps the universe did not merely expand in a stately manner but went through a much more dramatic, exponential expansion, essentially going from microscopic in scale to cosmically huge in a fraction of a second.
It is unclear how long this inflationary epoch lasted. Kovac calculated that in that first fraction of a second the volume of the universe increased by a factor of 10 to the 26th power, going from subatomic to cosmic.
This is obviously difficult terrain for theorists, and the question of why there is something rather than nothing creeps into realms traditionally governed by theologians. But theoretical physicists say that empty space is not empty, that the vacuum crackles with energy and that quantum physics permits such mind-boggling events as a universe popping up seemingly out of nowhere.
“Inflation — the idea of a very big burst of inflation very early on — is the most important idea in cosmology since the big bang itself,” said Michael Turner, a University of Chicago cosmologist. “If correct, this burst is the dynamite behind our big bang.”
Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel said, “If true, this has revolutionary impacts for our understanding of the physics of the early universe and gives us insight into physics on really small scales. We will soon know if this result is revolutionary or due to some poorly understood systematics.”
Staff writer M.L. Smith contributed to this report.