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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

SCIENCE ALERT: “smoking gun” evidence for Alan Guth’s theory of inflation! by Anna H. '14

Good thing I already have Alan Guth's signature on all of my class registration forms.

14 billion years ago (ish), the universe Banged and rapidly expanded. What started as tiny quantum fluctuations also expanded, clumped, and became the structures that we see today. One such large-scale structure is the Virgo galaxy cluster, of which the Milky Way is a member. We, of course, live in the Milky Way, although it’s hopeless to try and see that dusty stripe of stars from Boston.

Today, as you probably already know, there’s Big Science News: we’re a huge leap closer to understanding exactly what happened in the first moments of the universe. And word on the street is that this could mean a Nobel Prize for MIT’s Prof. Alan Guth.

My first interaction with Alan Guth was fraught with stress and in retrospect a bit impolite.

It happened a little over three years ago, when I took my first final exam at MIT. He was proctoring a different exam (relativity) but I didn’t know the difference, so when the TAs skipped over my section by accident I marched up to him and said “Hello, my section did not receive any exam booklets.” Prof. Guth smiled and asked whether I was in the right exam hall. Bristling at the suggestion that I could have wandered into the wrong exam hall, I said “Um, yes. 8.012 is DEFINITELY in this building, and we DEFINITELY do not have exams.” He said oh, okay, and hurried off to find exam booklets for me. Twenty seconds later, I had a fangirl freakout when gears in my brain clicked and I realized who I’d been speaking to.

A few months later, I declared a major in physics, and indicated on my advisor selection form that I was very interested in theoretical physics and cosmology (very cute, since in retrospect I realize that I had no idea what any of those words meant). Sometime over the summer, I received an e-mail saying that “Professor Alan Guth has agreed to serve as your advisor. Please use him as a resource for helping you make the most of your time at MIT, and for working towards completion of your Physics degree. Please do stop by and see your advisor on registration day.” and I had my second Alan Guth-themed freakout: slammed my computer shut only to immediately re-open it to e-mail my mom, sprinted outside to tell everyone and nearly broke my face on the screen door, and wrote a blog post.

Soon, we were e-mailing back and forth to schedule a class registration meeting (as my advisor, he helps me to come up with an appropriate schedule and signs off on my class registration forms). He signed his e-mails “Alan,” and I had a vigorous internal debate about whether that meant it was okay to start my e-mails with “Dear Alan” instead of “Dear Professor Guth.” Is it ever appropriate to address A Famous Person by first name?! I e-mailed him to ask. “Yes,” he wrote back, “I am happy to have my students and advisees call me Alan.”

That semester, I took a class taught by Alan: 8.286, The Early Universe. It was a great privilege to learn about inflationary theory from the man who came up with it. Sometimes, one hears about Famous Professors who have zero interest in pedagogy, but Alan isn’t like that at all. In office hours one day, he mentioned these crazy things called cosmic strings — I was so fascinated that I asked him to tell us more about them, and he offered to hold an entire extra session for the class. So, one evening, a group of us sat in a tiny conference room while Alan Guth stood at the board and blew our minds.

Fast forward to my junior fall. That was my roughest semester. I spent all my time on Junior Lab and learned that experimental work is My Thing, yet got my butt kicked by 8.05 (Quantum II) which sent me on a downward spiral of insecurity. I remember sitting in Alan’s office (surrounded by empty cans of Diet Coke…that guy has a Diet Coke problem) nearly in tears, mortified at the idea of having to discuss that academic disaster with the recent winner of a $3 million physics prize. The first thing he said was “I know you can do better,” and then we worked together to come up with a plan for how to move forward. He (along with Dumbledore) helped me put together my Quantum Rehab Program, which consisted of grading for Quantum I and writing lecture notes for Quantum II. On my way out the door, I congratulated him on his $3 million prize and asked if would have our advising meetings in fancy restaurants from now on — he was amused. Anyway, I’m now taking Quantum III, and feeling comfortable with that material.

One of my proudest moments at MIT has been: sitting down in Alan’s office at the beginning of my senior spring semester, and telling him about my graduate school acceptances. He wrote me letters of recommendation for nearly all of my grad school and fellowship applications (which is a tale of adventure in itself: Alan is reliable and has always submitted my letters on time, but also reliably submits things JUST in time — I have had some 11:59 PM freakouts. Oh well. Keeps things interesting, I guess?) and was really excited for me. After my 8.05 troubles, after wondering whether I was really cut out to be a scientist, having graduate schools confirm that they do in fact believe I ought to become a professional astronomer and being able to relay that to Alan meant a lot to me.

Today, Alan became famous, again. As you’re probably aware if you use the Internet, John Kovac and his team at Harvard just discovered “smoking gun” evidence for inflation: experimental support for the theory that Alan developed decades ago. It’s a HUGE deal, albeit a little confusing. You’ve heard of the Big Bang, yes? Inflation refers to the period immediately following that, in which (according to Alan) the universe expanded at a mind-boggling rate. If this theory is correct, then gravitational waves (“ripples in spacetime”) should have been emitted during that period. Scientists have not yet directly detected gravitational waves (that’s what the LIGO project at MIT is all about) but so far indirect measurements have been consistent with gravitational wave theory. In the 1980s, for example, a Nobel Prize went to pulsar astronomers (WOOOOO! PULSARS!) for indirectly measuring gravitational wave emission. This time, Kovac & co made another indirect measurement of gravitational waves, but this time gravitational waves from the primordial universe. Essentially, they found exactly what Alan’s theory predicted.

MIT’s physics department has a very high density of Famous Physicists. Yet, I have found very consistently over the past three years that it also has a high density of physicists who are dedicated to undergraduate pedagogy. If I had gone to another school, I might have stuck with my original neuroscience interests and become a doctor — here at MIT, though, this is the department in which I feel both highly intellectual stimulated and personally comfortable and supported. I really cannot say enough good things about my experiences in Course 8.

So, today, MIT and the astronomy community are abuzz with excitement: I’ve been getting e-mails from friends, had a few shrieking phone conversations, and there are a lot of universe expansion images on my Facebook newsfeed. Fingers crossed for that Nobel Prize. In any case, I’m glad that I’m such an indecisive student: I end up adding and dropping a couple of classes every semester, so I have accumulated many copies of Alan Guth’s signature.