In physical cosmology, cosmic inflation, cosmological inflation or just inflation is the theorized extremely rapid exponential expansion of the early universe by a factor of at least 1078 in volume, driven by a negative-pressure vacuum energy density. The inflationary epoch comprises the first part of the electroweak epoch following the grand unification epoch. It lasted from 10−36 seconds after the Big Bang to sometime between 10−33 and 10−32 seconds. Following the inflationary period, the universe continued to expand, but at a slower rate.
The term "inflation" is also used to refer to the hypothesis that inflation occurred, to the theory of inflation, or to the inflationary epoch. The inflationary hypothesis was originally proposed in 1980 by American physicist Alan Guth, who named it "inflation". It was also proposed by Katsuhiko Sato in 1981.
As a direct consequence of this expansion, all of the observable universe originated in a small causally connected region. Inflation answers the classic conundrum of the Big Bang cosmology: why does the universe appear flat, homogeneous, and isotropic in accordance with the cosmological principle when one would expect, on the basis of the physics of the Big Bang, a highly curved, heterogeneous universe? Inflation also explains the origin of the large-scale structure of the cosmos. Quantum fluctuations in the microscopic inflationary region, magnified to cosmic size, become the seeds for the growth of structure in the universe (see galaxy formation and evolution and structure formation).
While the detailed particle physics mechanism responsible for inflation is not known, the basic picture makes a number of predictions that have been confirmed by observation. Inflation is thus now considered part of the standard hot Big Bang cosmology. The hypothetical particle or field thought to be responsible for inflation is called the inflaton.