When Professor Andrei Linde of Stanford University first read a paper in the 1980s by MIT professor Alan Guth, then a postdoc at Stanford, he was taken by its description of cosmic “inflation,” the notion that one trillionth of one trillionth of one trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe — for an infinitely brief moment — expanded faster than the speed of light. Linde immediately started improving the theory, completing his reworking before Guth’s next paper came from the United States that said the theory was impossible. “It’s a good thing the Soviet mail system was so slow, I didn’t hear I couldn’t improve the theory until I already had!” jokes Linde.
I am writing to describe what it was like to sit in on a lecture that I did not understand, but that changed my life. The March 18 lecture in 54-100 entitled “Inflation: News and Perspectives” was delivered by Linde — who will now almost assuredly win the Nobel Prize in physics — just one day after his theory about the universe’s rapid expansion during its earliest moments was confirmed by direct physical evidence. The evidence, recently published by the BICEP2 team after a painstaking multi-year effort, included a surprisingly robust signal of gravitational waves of polarized microwave radiation throughout the universe. This work is by all accounts one of the most staggering scientific discoveries of all time and will change our understanding of physics and cosmology forever. And the craziest thing of all is that despite not understanding a single thing that this professor said during the course of his one hour seminar, I was captivated by the magnitude, integrity and staggering accomplishment of the moment.
The lecture had a celebratory spirit. There was pride in the air not just across the physics community, but also across the entire science community. I am certain that many people in the audience from unrelated fields, like me, also had no idea what Linde was talking about. But understanding didn’t matter because everyone in the packed auditorium was immersed in the glow and power of exceptional achievement. Everyone knew — technical details notwithstanding — that this was a moment that marked a definitive, significant triumph in unlocking an eternal truth about the nature of our universe. As Linde proceeded through his talk, little plastic wine glasses and bottles of sparkling cider were distributed throughout the lecture hall in an endearingly clumsy manner.
It is a humbling experience to be in the presence of such, for lack of a better term, giddy genius. Linde explained the history of inflation theory, of the marginal and significant improvements to the theory over the past 30 years — again, in terms that were literally gibberish to me, but overall formed a cohesive story, the excitement for which kept the standing room only audience spellbound. Seeing Linde discuss that his most groundbreaking and breathtaking work had been validated, in what was effectively a 30-year victory lap condensed into a one-hour seminar, was as inspirational a moment as I have witnessed. And yet, this was a victory lap for the community, for humanity, not for any single person, and Linde made that point obvious, as he harkened back to Newton, Einstein, and Hawking as having laid the groundwork for his own contributions.
His pride overflowed into the audience, as he repeated how shocked he was that the evidence was so strong (“Zero point two!” he kept saying), stronger than he had ever imagined, strong enough in fact that almost every other theory of inflation has now been literally nullified, rendered dead and moot. He walked us through competing theories and one by one said, “done, done, done” — and in doing so, we were direct witnesses to the irrevocable realignment of cosmology. There was no coming back from this truth; the door that Guth had found, Linde had described, and the BICEP2 team had walked through, had been closed behind us forever. And being in the audience to hear Linde speak of that journey was simply remarkable. It was awe-inspiring to be in the presence of such profound truth worn on the face of a man who himself was so obviously overwhelmed with genuine, honest joy, as he soaked in the grandeur of the moment.
By the end of the talk, having proceeded through a parade of figures and equations, Linde took a few moments to explicitly state that he hoped the evidence stood up to criticism, that upon checking and rechecking BICEP2’s findings, that the physical evidence confirming his theory would hold up. He did his best to hedge his conclusions for now, to remain as rational as possible in the face of unimaginable excitement and corroboration — always the good scientist. Explicitly rooting for a study to be verified is dangerous for a scientist, but can you blame him? Though confirming the evidence would bring Linde great personal fame, he chose instead to focus on how beautiful the model turned out to be, and how such groundbreaking work would open doors to entirely new fields of physics.
As the lectured concluded, Guth led the entire lecture hall in a sparkling cider toast: “Cheers to what we can achieve with science.”
And so this is how I came to be filled with an overwhelming motivation to explore and to achieve on account of a lecture that I did not understand. Sometimes inspiration can be imparted by a shared experience, by a communal feeling that science done properly and with full commitment can forever change the way we all think. The pervasive feeling that together we continue our march towards universal discovery and truth was indelibly imprinted on my own identity that day, and having felt it, I am no longer the same. Together we move forward as scientists, as humans, and as a civilization. Thank you Newton, Einstein, Hawking, Guth, BICEP2, Linde, and countless other contributors. You have inspired current and future generations of those who dare to question, to answer, and to dream. Bravo.
Adam Freedman is a graduate student in Environmental Engineering.