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Science in Mind

MIT physicist Alan Guth shares $1 million Kavli astrophysics prize

Alan Guth has worked on the theory of inflation — the ‘bang’ of the Big Bang — for decades. A South Pole experiment thought to confirm the theory is now being reviewed.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Alan Guth has worked on the theory of inflation — the ‘bang’ of the Big Bang — for decades. A South Pole experiment thought to confirm the theory is now being reviewed.

Alan Guth, the MIT physicist who scrawled the words “spectacular realization” in his notebook more than three decades ago after working out some of the details of the first split-seconds of the universe, has been awarded the prestigious Kavli Prize in Astrophysics.

The $1 million prize is being awarded for Guth’s work on the theory of inflation, which explains the “bang” of the Big Bang. That theory was recently thought by many to be confirmed by an experiment at the South Pole that detected a particular swirly polarization pattern in the early light of the universe.

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Recently, however, scientists have raised questions about whether there might be other explanations for the polarization pattern the team detected. New evidence suggests that what appeared to be the smoking gun for inflation might be explained by something simpler and more mundane — dust.

Guth told the journal Nature that new results raise questions about how to interpret the results from the South Pole experiment, called BICEP-2.

“I had thought that the result was very secure,” Guth told Nature. “Now the situation has changed.”

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That means physicists around the world eagerly await the analysis of results from a European satellite that should help settle the matter.

Guth will share the Kavli award with Stanford University physicist Andrei D. Linde and Alexei A. Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences.

It isn’t the first time Guth’s work has been honored. Last year, he received a $3 million award from the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation. At the time, he told The New York Times that his bank account balance ballooned from $200 to $3,000,200.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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