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South Pole Telescope scientists have detected for the first time a subtle distortion in the oldest light in the universe, which may help reveal secrets about the earliest moments in the universe's formation.

The scientists observed twisting patterns in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background -- light that last interacted with matter very early in the history of the universe, less than 400,000 years after the big bang. These patterns, known as "B modes," are caused by gravitational lensing, a phenomenon that occurs when the trajectory of light is bent by massive objects, much like a lens focuses light.

A multi-institutional collaboration of researchers led by John Carlstrom, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, made the discovery. They announced their findings in a paper published Sept. 30, 2013, in the journal Physical Review Letters -- using the first data from SPTpol, a polarization-sensitive camera installed on the telescope in January 2012.

"The detection of B-mode polarization by South Pole Telescope is a major milestone, a technical achievement that indicates exciting physics to come," Carlstrom said.

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