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Scientist helps unlock mysteries of the universe

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A University of Minnesota scientist with family in Wadena is a part of a team that believes it has detected ripples in space from the very first moments after the Big Bang - a discovery that may fundamentally change our understanding of the universe.

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"It goes back to the beginning of our universe," said Eric Bullock, a fourth-year graduate student at the university's Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics. "It helps explain how all the galaxies, all the stars, came to be."

Bullock, whose parents and two sisters live in Wadena, is listed as an author on a paper released last week that lends credibility to a theory called inflation, which postulates the universe expanded rapidly in the first trillionths of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. Using data collected at a South Pole telescope called BICEP2 from 2010 to 2012, the team of astrophysicists from Harvard, Stanford, Cal Tech and the University of Minnesota identified gravitational waves long-theorized but - until now - unsupported by observation.

"Inflation is something that many scientists already believed in, but there was no direct evidence for it," Bullock said. "The signal that we saw offers the most direct evidence that inflation occurred ... There are a lot of people who are excited about this detection."

When the scientists first saw the signal, they thought they couldn't be right, Bullock said. But repeated data analysis showed they were on to something.

Last fall, Bullock traveled to the South Pole for two months to work on the Keck Array telescope, the successor to BICEP2. He replaced helium line hoses and modified the design of a calibrator that measures polarization angles, which are required in the complicated mathematics of detecting primordial gravitational waves.

He'll return to Antarctica this fall, which is spring in the southern hemisphere, to use the calibrator he built last year.

The scientists will gather more data they hope will confirm their discovery - and silence skeptics. They'll also try to iron out uncertainties in the data.

"We really have to convince other scientists that what we are seeing is real," Bullock said. "It hasn't been seen before."

"We're looking for a very small signal," he said. "It's not easy."

Why should ordinary people care about cosmic inflation?

"We want to understand the world around us and how it came to be," Bullock said. "It gives us a better understanding of how the universe as a whole works. We're part of that universe."

He noted it sometimes takes years - if not generations - before the full impact of scientific discoveries is realized.

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