In the beginning, there was nothing.

And then, in an explosive instant: Everything.

That explains not just Stanford physicist Andrei Linde's landmark theory, but also his moment of epiphany, in Moscow 30 years ago, that transformed our understanding of the beginnings of the universe. Astronomers announced new findings last week that, if corroborated, validate his pioneering vision that the universe was born in a fraction of a second, expanding exponentially from a size smaller than a proton.

Last Monday, a team of scientists reported that a telescope at the South Pole had detected gravitational waves that are the first tremors of the Big Bang, when the universe was a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. The news, heralded as one of cosmology's biggest discoveries, lends "smoking gun" evidence to Linde's once-radical Chaotic Inflation theory about the universe's violent expansion.

"It is a wonderful thing. For so many years we live with an idea that what we are saying is true -- despite what everybody else says," Linde, 66, said Thursday in his small corner office at Stanford, holding only a computer, a bookcase and a blackboard of chalked equations.

He and physicist wife Renata Kallosh learned the stunning news in a morning knock on the door of their campus home, delivered by Stanford researcher Chao-Lin Kuo, who was part of the South Pole team that detected the waves. His surprise visit to Linde's Stanford home, complete with champagne, was captured on a video that went viral on YouTube.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology cosmologist Max Tegmark told The New York Times, "I think that if this stays true, it will go down as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science."

Scientists long speculated that our universe started some 13.8 billion years ago, created in a single "Big Bang" fireball. But that theory had flaws. The Bang was there, but it was not big enough to explain our universe. To solve this problem, Alan Guth of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park proposed that after the original explosion, the fireball cooled and then reignited in a special vacuum-like state, in a mind-boggling fraction of a second. That sudden expansion was called "inflation."

It is a stunning notion: in a brief blinding pulse, all the matter there is, or will ever be, was produced. But the theory proposed by Guth also had a flaw: after inflation, the universe became very nonuniform. In 1983, Linde proposed an improved theory, called "chaotic inflation."

In Linde's inflationary theory, the newborn universe was not hot -- it became hot only later, after inflation. It is the waves from this inflation that were announced last week. Then, in 1986, Linde developed the theory of "eternal chaotic inflation," which creates a self-reproducing, eternally existing system of many universes.

This most extraordinary of ideas was conceived in the most ordinary of circumstances. Linde was lying in bed, sick, at his home in Moscow, during a miserable winter. And his international intellectual life was in limbo, because publication of a paper had been suspended a year during the turbulence at the end of Soviet rule.

"I was living in this state of depression. I was in my bed and unable to do anything," he said. Then came a sudden invitation to visit Italy -- but he had to submit a paper overnight.

"I held my head ... What can I do? What can I do?" he recalled thinking, with less than an hour to write. "And suddenly, I had the theory of eternally expanding inflationary universes, unceasingly producing new universes," of which ours is but one of many.

"It was just pure, from nowhere," he said.

He smuggled a paper out of the Soviet Union into Italy, then published it. The theory stayed marginal at first; people had an attachment to the Big Bang, he thinks.

The son of two Russian physicists, Linde spent his early childhood enamored with geology. But in seventh grade, two books -- one on cosmology, the other on Einstein's theory of relativity, both read in the back seat of his parents' car while en route to the Black Sea -- changed his mind.

Savas Dimopoulos, a particle physicist and colleague at Stanford, calls Linde "spectacularly brilliant, very intuitive -- and intellectually very daring. He is capable of extracting great physics from the simplest principles."

Yet even now, while giddy with the hope of triumph, this founding father of Chaotic Inflation is unwilling to suspend all skepticism.

"First we really need to double- and triple-check it," he said. "If you are doing something which is wrong and stupid, you better be the first to know."

Linde is riveted by the possibility that the explosion didn't just create us -- but billions of other universes governed by different physical laws. It is a comfortable concept for a mind that grew up under Soviet dogma and distrusts any single authoritarian system -- including monotheistic religions ruled over by a single God. He said he is more attracted to polytheistic Eastern philosophy.

"Even if one tries to interpret our results in religious terms, I think that it would be such a waste of energy for 'God' not to use this way of creating a universe -- to take a milligram of matter and then the universe does the rest of the job by itself, producing infinite number of universes," he said.

If there was a creator of the universe, was the work signed? Is there a hidden message? The inflationary expansion could make it too huge to read, he concedes. But perhaps the message is encoded in the laws of that universe -- legible only to physicists. The thought brings him joy.

"Maybe God is a physicist hacker," Linde laughed. Then he turned quiet. "I am not so sure this is just a joke."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.