The leading hypothesis about the universe’s birth—that a quantum speck of space became energized and inflated in a split second, creating a baby cosmos—solves many puzzles and fits all observations to date. Yet this “cosmic inflation” hypothesis lacks definitive proof. Telltale ripples that should have formed in the inflating spatial fabric, known as primordial gravitational waves, haven’t been detected in the geometry of the universe by the world’s most sensitive telescopes. Their absence has fueled underdog theories of cosmogenesis in recent years. And yet cosmic inflation is wriggly. In many variants of the idea, the sought-after ripples would simply be too weak to observe.
“The question is whether one can test the entire [inflation] scenario, not just specific models,” said Avi Loeb, an astrophysicist and cosmologist at Harvard University. “If there is no guillotine that can kill off some theories, then what’s the point?”