A dizzying scientific achievement: Astronomers have gotten a look back at what one scientist calls "the beginning of time ... the universe at the very beginning." That is, they've detected gravitational waves that could be the first direct evidence that within a fraction of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the cosmos began to, in the New York Times' description, "swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant." Such an event (dubbed "inflation") was theorized in 1979 by physicist Alan Guth, but finding evidence of it "has been a key goal in the study of the universe," the AP reports. The findings must still be confirmed by other experiments, though the lead astronomer says there's only a one in 3.5 million chance the team's results are a fluke.
Researchers from a number of schools and organizations scanned 2% of the sky with a telescope at the South Pole for three years to arrive at their findings, looking for a specific light-wave pattern in the microwave radiation remaining from the Big Bang. That pattern is caused by gravitational waves ("ripples in the interweaving of space and time that sprawls through the universe," as the AP puts it), which have been called the Big Bang's first tremors; they've never before been detected. If verified, one scientist says this could be one of the greatest discoveries "in the history of science"; Wired compares its significance to the discovery of the Higgs boson. The Times has a great graphic that explains the theory of inflation in layman's terms ... using coffee. (Read more big bang stories.)