The authors of the claimed biggest astrophysics discovery of the century admit they may have been wrong

In March 2014 a team of astrophysicists announced to the world, through a public press release, that they had made the biggest discovery of the 21st century. Using the BICEP2, a telescope located at the South Pole they claimed that they had discovered evidence of the early inflation epoch of the big-bang universe. This was in part identified through what they claimed was the signature of primordial gravitational waves generated by distortions in spacetime during the first quintillionth of a quintillionth of a second after the alleged big bang and the effect of gravitational lensing on the B-mode polarization of the CMB photonsthat have travelled for allegedly the past 13.4 billion years since they left the big-bang fireball. The discovery was celebrated worldwide and some even spoke of a Nobel prize for the work.

BICEP2 telescope

Figure 1: BICEP2 telescope, in Antarctica, used to make the disputed discovery.   Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University

Scientists dispute claims

Soon after the announcement on March 17th 2014 I pointed out the logical fallacy of this sort of thing. Cosmology is not science in the usual sense of experimentally repeatable tests. Cosmology is really historical science and as such there could be a plethora of possible explanations for the same evidence. Then a short while after the champagne corks had been popped, leading cosmologists, including Lawrence Krauss, also questioned the premature announcement stating,

“ … it is important to demonstrate that other possible sources cannot account for the current BICEP2 data before definitely claiming Inflation has been proved.”2

But then instead of this discovery being further hailed as the claimed ‘smoking gun’ evidence of the big bang, a significant controversy developed amongst scientists who had had time to analyze the results in more detail. It was reported in Science,

“The biggest discovery in cosmology in a decade could turn out to be an experimental artifact—at least according to an Internet rumor. The team that reported the discovery is sticking by its work, however.”3

And I wrote,

Some experts have suggested that the polarized emission from dust in our galaxy can account for most of the swirls in the BICEP2 data and that the BICEP team made a mistake,making it more likely that the signal came from a source other than gravitational waves.

There have since been many articles written on this in a media storm from even the very first day of their media release.5-8 In the June 5th, 2014, edition of the prestigious scientific journal Nature, Dr Paul Steinhardt, a distinguished Professor of Physics at Princeton University, under the headline ‘Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble’ wrote,

“Now a careful reanalysis by scientists at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, also in Princeton, has concluded that the BICEP2 B-mode pattern could be the result mostly or entirely of foreground effects without any contribution from gravitational waves. Other dust models considered by the BICEP2 team do not change this negative conclusion…”

For this observation Steinhardt has come under personal attack. One blogger wrote that this,

“…puts him almost in the same category with hardcore cranks…”9

But that same blogger admits the problem here,

“What actually follows from the facts is that cosmic inflation as a paradigm doesn’t make unambiguous predictions about (at least) one physical quantity, namely the strength of the primordial gravitational waves.”

Which is just what I have been saying all along.

BICEP2 publish

Finally on June 20th, 2014, the BICEP2 Collaboration had their paper published in the prestigious Physical Review Letters.10 Their paper comprises 25 pages in a journal that has a normal strict limit of 4 pages (actually 3500 words11) and, in special cases, extension to 6 pages is sometimes seen. This gives you some idea of the ‘impact’ to the scientific community that the editors have attributed to the discovery.

However, in those 25 pages there appears a one-half page “Note added” during the review process (prior to publication) wherein they admit that galactic dust contamination

“…may well be higher than any of the models considered…”10 [emphasis added]

by them in their analysis.

BICEP2B

Figure 2: A graphic showing the swirling B-mode polarization detected in the CMB radiation. Credit: BICEP2 Collaboration

Since their paper was submitted for peer-review and publication, new information on polarized dust emission from the Galaxy has become available from the Planck satellite, a space-borne telescope, which measures the CMB radiation with higher resolution than any previous telescope. This new data indicates that the polarized dust emission may be stronger than any of the models considered and hence they admit there is a doubt about the B-mode polarization signal they claimed to be primordial from the big bang inflation epoch. They now admit the possibility of foreground dust contamination,

“Accounting for the contribution of foreground, dust will shift this value [of their claimed confidence interval of detection] downward by an amount which will be better constrained with upcoming data sets.”10

This is code for ‘we may be totally wrong,’ because if the confidence limit is shifted down below 4 σ then, statistically, there is no detection. That is, it would be the result of foreground contamination from dust in the Galaxy. But they live in hope,

“More data are clearly required to resolve the situation.”10

But they can’t

“…exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal,”10 [emphasis added]

which they had attributed to the primordial gravitational waves in that putative big-bang inflation era.

Conclusion

Cosmology is a weak form of science, at best. It relies heavily on statistical arguments and on observations that have many possible interpretations. In that sense it is not on the same footing as repeatable operational science. It cannot make predictions on that basis, because even if you do make a prediction and discover the effect you predicted, you cannot rule out many other possibilities. And some of them you may not have even thought of.

Another problem here is that the big bang is now a paradigm. It is believed to be true—that the universe started that way—so evidence found that contradicts it is woven into the established fabric by use of additional ad hoc hypotheses and new parameters. These result in unknowns that are used to explain the unknown.

Inflation itself is one of these unknowns used to explain the unknowns like the horizon problem, the flatness problem, the monopole problem, etc.12  So even if you find evidence to support your unknown, what if the unknown is purely fiction? It would not be the first time in science that such a situation has developed. Phlogiston is one such example,13 which was eventually eliminated. But that did not have a bearing on our origins and carried less philosophical and theological weight as to the verity of a Creator.

The big bang is claimed to be the uncaused cause, the beginning of the universe without God. Cosmic inflation is used to support that conjecture, and because of the conflicting evidence, it is necessarily supported by unknowns. This is a deep hole that those believers in scientism have dug and they must blithely continue else they will have to admit the Creator.

Unwisely there are those, like Hugh Ross and his ‘Reasons to Believe’ ministry, who have hung their Christian theology on the unstable ‘sand’ of big-bang cosmology.12 They claim BICEP2 and other lines of evidence to support the Genesis 1 creation, via a supposedly ‘literal’ reading of the text. But no such reading is possible and to use this weak form of science to support your theology is so dangerous because the science continually changes. Only the solid ‘rock’ foundation of the biblical account, taken as straightforward history, is appropriate for this—meaning that there was no big bang, but a big God Who created the universe that we can see out to the limits of our telescopes. And He is worth putting your trust in.

Update (2 Sept 2014) 

In an article published in Nature News (03 June 2014) titled “Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble” Paul Steinhardt, a theoretical physicist, argues that the hype over the so-called gravitational wave signature of the big-bang inflation epoch is premature.

“Now a careful reanalysis by scientists at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, also in Princeton, has concluded that the BICEP2 B-mode pattern could be the result mostly or entirely of foreground effects without any contribution from gravitational waves.”

Foreground contamination from sources in the galaxy could account for the whole claim as the authors themselves now admit. This is certainly is a good lesson in believing the hype. But note the response of the ‘true believer’.

“Yet some proponents of inflation who celebrated the BICEP2 announcement already insist that the theory is equally valid whether or not gravitational waves are detected. How is this possible?

The answer given by proponents is alarming: the inflationary paradigm is so flexible that it is immune to experimental and observational tests.”  (emphasis added)

References

  1. CMB = Cosmic Microwave Background. This is believed by most to be left-over radiation from the big bang fireball, measured at wavelengths of microwaves, or more correctly at millimetre-wavelengths with frequencies of the order of 100 GHz.
  2. Dent, J.B., Krauss, L.M., and Mathur, H., Killing the Straw Man: Does BICEP Prove Inflation?, arxiv.org/pdf/1403.5166v1.pdf
  3. Blockbuster Big Bang Result May Fizzle, Rumor Suggests, 12 May 2014, news.sciencemag.org/physics/2014/05/blockbuster-big-bang-result-may-fizzle-rumor-suggests
  4. Rumours swirl over credibility of big bang ripple find, 13 May 2014, http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25558-rumours-swirl-over-credibility-of-big-bang-ripple-find.html#.U3VC7vmSxFv
  5. http://philbull.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/how-solid-is-the-bicep2-b-mode-result/, 17 March 2014.
  6. http://profmattstrassler.com/tag/bicep2/, 20 June 2014.
  7. http://phys.org/news/2014-06-experts-big-bolstering-discovery.html, 14 June 2014.
  8. http://phys.org/news/2014-06-clouded-discovery-gravitational.html#nRlv, 4 June 2014.
  9. http://motls.blogspot.com.au/2014/06/inflation-and-bicep2-steinhardt-is.html, 7 June 2014.
  10. Ade, P. A. R., et al. (BICEP2 Collaboration), Detection of B-Mode Polarization at Degree Angular Scales by BICEP2, Phys. Rev. Lett., 112: 241101 (2014)
  11. http://journals.aps.org/authors/length-guide
  12. Hartnett, J.G., The big bang is not a Reason to Believe! http://creation.com/big-bang-not-a-reason; http://johnhartnett.org/2014/05/20/the-big-bang-is-not-a-reason-to-believe/
  13. http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Phlogistin

Additional Reading