We have discussed the three main planks of evidence for the Big Bang model: the Hubble expansion graph (and consequent estimate of the age of the universe), the abundance of hydrogen and helium, and the cosmic background radiation. These leave little room for doubt that the basic model is correct. On the other hand, close examination of the model raises many questions – in particular the singularity, horizon and flatness problems (see posts below). Another problem is that it is not clear from the model how perturbations in the early universe led to the large scale structure of galaxies and galaxy clusters seen today.
A possible solution to these puzzles is the theory of inflation. First proposed by Alan Guth in 1981, inflation posits that in the very first fractions of an instant after the Bang, the young universe underwent an exponentially fast expansion (faster than the speed of light) – totally unike the Hubble expansion we see today. This does not violate principles of relativity, since relativity sets no constraints on the behaviour of spacetime itself.
An inflationary expansion of the very early universe offers a simple solution to the horizon problem: if the universe expanded arbitrarily fast, even the farthest flung points could once have been in thermal contact. In other words, the properties of distant points in the universe would not be determined by a competition between the finite speed of light and the finite age of the universe, as previously thought.
Inflation also offers a neat solution to the flatness problem: it was soon shown that, instead of deviations from flatness quickly leading to a runaway open or closed universe, deviations in an inflationary universe tend to be driven back towards flatness. The geometrical equivalent of this is to imagine a balloon being inflated to enormously large dimensions – of course the surface is driven towards flatness.
This is a simplified overview of the theory of inflation – the main point is that inflation offers a version of the Big Bang model in which the universe is driven towards the critical value of flatness/ mass density that exists today, far from accepting it as lucky coincidence.
What is most impressive about the theory is that, contrary to public perception, inflation was not originaly posited in order to address problems in Big Bang cosmology. In fact, the theory arose in an attempt to address certain puzzles in Grand Unified Theory (the branch of particle physics that seeks to unify the strong interaction with the electro-weak interaction). Guth’s proposal was at first treated with incredulity by the cosmological community – however, it was quickly realised that it offered an intriguing solution to the problems above.
As so often, the original model of inflation was found to contain a fatal mathematical flaw (the end of inflation was incompatible with the known universe). This flaw was soon overcome in a modified version of inflation by Linde and Steinhardt. Nowadays, many versions of inflationary models have been posited: which particular version is correct remains to be seen, but strong theoretical and experimental support for an inflationary universe has been forthcoming (more on this next day).