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March 17, 2014

Evidence spotted for universe's early growth spurt

NEW YORK — The universe was born almost 14 billion years ago, exploding into existence in an event called the Big Bang. Now researchers say they've spotted evidence that a split-second later, the expansion of the cosmos began with a powerful jump-start.

Experts called the discovery a major advance if confirmed by others. Although many scientists already believed that initial, extremely rapid growth spurt happened, finding this evidence has been a key goal in the study of the universe. Researchers reported Monday that they did it by peering into the faint light that remains from the Big Bang.

If verified, the discovery "gives us a window on the universe at the very beginning," when it was far less than one-trillionth of a second old, said theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who was not involved in the work.

"It's just amazing," he said. "You can see back to the beginning of time."

Another outside expert, physicist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the finding already suggests that some ideas about the rapid expansion of the universe can be ruled out.

Right after the Big Bang, the universe was a hot soup of particles. It took about 380,000 years to cool enough that the particles could form atoms, then stars and galaxies. Billions of years later, planets formed from gas and dust that were orbiting stars. The universe has continued to spread out.

Krauss said he thinks the new finding could rank with the greatest discoveries about the universe over the last 25 years, such as the Nobel prize-winning discovery that the universe's expansion is accelerating.

The new results were announced by a collaboration that includes researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the University of Minnesota, Stanford University, the California Institute of Technology and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The team plans to submit its results to a scientific journal this week, said its leader, John Kovac of Harvard.

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