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Why Inflation Didn’t Get the Same Hype as the Higgs

Shown here are the actual B-mode polarization patterns provided by the BICEP2 Telescope. Image Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Shown here are the B-mode polarization patterns on the cosmic microwave background. Image Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Last month astronomers provided evidence that the universe underwent a brief but stupendous expansion at the very beginning of time. It was a landmark discovery. And while the media worldwide gleamed with fantastical headlines, I’m left overwhelmed with the feeling that it didn’t quite get the spotlight it deserves.

The day of the announcement was ablaze with excitement. When I first started to cover the news, I told my mother I was writing on something that was bigger than the Higgs boson. That was the best way I could explain the significance of this monumental discovery to someone with very little physics knowledge in a text message.

But inflation didn’t get the same hype as the Higgs. Why?

Scientific results are mostly tangible. The Higgs boson was created in a 27-kilometer ring of superconducting magnets designed to boost the energy of particles — marking the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. There’s something about this experiment that we can wrap our minds around, even when the particle itself remains elusive. The $10 billion effort has 6,000 researchers working hard to control the system.

But we can’t control the universe. We can’t ask two galaxies to collide; We can’t speed up stellar evolution; And we can’t pull a nearby star a little closer to take a peek at its circling exoplanet. Instead we stand on our cosmic platform and wait for the light from various happenings to reach us. Once it does, we dig through that light — collecting photons in different filters or spreading them across a spectrum of wavelengths — reaping every last bit of knowledge possible.

Astronomical research is complex and abstract. But it’s what we love about it.

The vast cosmic arena — with its unimaginable vistas of time and space — is laid out in the small specks of light on the celestial sphere. By collecting this light we have placed ourselves within the cosmos. We know the universe began with the Big Bang nearly 13.8 billion years ago. We know that dark matter binds massive galaxy clusters together and that dark energy is causing the universe to accelerate rapidly. It’s truly phenomenal that so much can be learned from the study of light.

Still, there’s a fundamental difference between observing the direct light emitted from distant stars and galaxies and observing a slight polarization pattern on the cosmic microwave background — the radiation released 380,000 years after the Big Bang when photons were able to travel freely across the cosmos.

The result threw open a new window on the birth of the universe. To be more precise, it let us peer back at the moment that took place a mere trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. But it takes so many steps (potentially as many steps as seconds from then until now) to grasp this hazy and mind-boggling concept. It will stretch your ideas of space and time to their limits.

Not only does this result succeed in showing the universe in its infancy, explaining the origin of cosmic structure and providing evidence for the last untested prediction of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (gravity comes in discrete packets like light), but it makes an even wilder prediction.

The model likely produces not just one universe, but rather an ensemble of universes: an endless series of big bangs that continue to pop up eternally. Our universe may just be one bubble out of a vast cosmic ocean of others.

Astronomy is moving further toward the abstract. Both in how we collect data and the scientific results we carefully and slowly unearth from that data.

I find this awe-inspiring. But while astronomers are finding ingenious and creative methods to further understand the phenomenal universe in which we live, science journalists and educators are going to have to follow suit. We need to act not as translators but as guides who map scientific knowledge, finding paths through vast amounts of abstract information and analyzing key points along the way. Only then will inflation trump the Higgs and the abstract become tangible.

But honestly I’m still ruminating on this question so all additional thoughts are welcome.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dangerdad April 24, 2014, 1:36 PM

    Personally I was blown away by the discovery. And the video posted here of the delivery of the news was icing on the cake.

    I think inflation is a harder concept to explain, and didn’t have the lead-up hype of the Higgs Boson, which is one of the reasons it doesn’t fit into a reporting mold well.

  • Xavier April 24, 2014, 7:31 PM

    At least from the scientist community point of view, I think you missed an important point. The Higgs was discovered. The Inflation is not yet confirmed.
    Let’s first talk about the Higgs. If you remember correctly the firsts hints at a 125GeV Higgs were given by both ATLAS and CMS with about 3 sigmas each. This was very exciting, but no discovery yet. The discovery came later. It was 5 sigmas, in 2 different independent experiments, and the Higgs is not only seen in one channel. It is looked for in many different channels, and all agree to give a “beautiful” Higgs. Too beautiful would say some, as it is just perfect in any aspect, and we would love to see defects, indications of new physics, but I’m moving away from the point. The point is that noone in the community doubts we found the Higg, as it was found by 2 experiments, and in all the channels one expects it.
    Now, about the BICEP2 results. This is huge, no doubt about it. If it is true. And this is where I think there is a major difference with the Higgs discovery. Don’t misinterpret me, BICEP2 results are huge. My office neighbour has started working on CMB again after 15 years on another topic, a search for BICEP2 on arxiv gives 165 papers! But…
    First, the data in themselves are not that beautiful. The fit to the model they have fits nicely on the first 4-5 data points but then undershoots the data for the last 3 points. These analysis are extremely difficult because you have to substract backgrounds which may be underestimated. There are quite a few of the 165 papers dealing with this extra possible background. Then, the result is in mild disagreement with Planck, which did not publish its polarization result yet, but published a limit to the “r” of 0.11 or less, while BICEP2 favours 0.2. Then it’s only one instrument, and more important it’s only one fit. It is like if we had seen the Higgs only in one channel. The BICEP2 people are well aware of course of these limits, and the BICEP3 proposal includes other frequencies to look at. Just like other channels, one should see a coherent gravitational wave signal in all frequencies, while sources of noise will have different spectral responses. And finally, observing a B polarization is not necessarily a direct proof of inflation. However this last point is more nitpicking, as even if there are other ways to get B modes, if the B modes were confirmed it would be probably considered by most in the community as a proof of the inflation (or an inflation, as there are many models), with trip to Stockholm included.
    Planck will publish its polarization results in a few months. If they confirm BICEP2 results, this will go for another big round of media attention, and a Nobel for inflation, and then probably the inflation will get a similar attention the Higgs got. But for now, I don’t think there is anybody in the community that would bet his life on the BICEP2 results. We’ll have to wait for another measurement to confirm or refute BICEP2, hopefully with results in different frequencies.

    • Jeffrey Boerst April 25, 2014, 3:34 AM

      I love comments from which I glean even more than the article on which it rests. Well put. Thanks for the background! ;)

  • rc davison April 25, 2014, 7:11 AM

    Great post, Shannon. It’s also great to see intelligent, thought provoking comments. Thanks Xavier.

    I think the public was primed for the Higgs over a number of years as the LHC was being built, tested and finally put into service. The Higgs was probably the main subject of most news posts about the LHC (along with making black holes!) and that got people excited and informed about the topic.

    While inflation is often discussed in presentations on the big bang or evolution of the cosmos, it is seldom focused on and usually mentioned in passing. The news release from BICEP2 probably caught most people off-guard. Without the topic popping up in the news streams months and years prior to the announcement, a good part of the public probably don’t understand the significance of the discovery, if they even understand the idea of inflation. It may be just a case of education and exposure to the topic.

  • Richard Kirk April 25, 2014, 8:16 AM

    It may be many people have a restricted view of how science works.

    The search for the Higgs Boson fits the simple picture. You have a theory (or theories) that predicts a particular effect. No-one knows the answer, so we have to design and build a new piece of apparatus to produce the effect and measure it. We run the experiment, and get the results. Some theories are disproved, while others are bolstered. It’s like the science you did at school but bigger and harder. The average punter may not understand the fine detail, but they can stand on the touchline and cheer on Team Higgs.

    The five-sigma results are typical of this sort of big science. You have one bit of kit, and it cost a lot so you run a lot of tests. But all of the tests have come from the same team on the same apparatus, so it is quite possible there is a systematic mistake. The book ‘A Random Walk in Science’ has a great tale on how all measurements of the speed of light trended towards Michaelson’s latest figure, until very long baseline radar suggested that this figure was slightly wrong, So, there is another vital part of science, which is to try and confirm the results using different techniques, different people and different apparatus. This is not as glamorous because you aren’t there first, and all the interesting hype has been spent. But this making sure all of the bits of science hang together is what makes for tough results.

    Okay – now for the B-mode polarization stuff. People have guessed that everything came from a Big Bang. The uniformity of the universe suggests that there was a period of rapid inflation, though there is still a lot we don’t know about that. The BICEP data gives us a new fuzzy glimpse into this very early stage. It is a new way of seeing, but it isn’t giving us a clear yes/no thing like the Higgs Boson data. So it is much harder to report.

    There are other parts of science that are easy to report. Anything that gives us a new gadget. Anything that improves something we already understand. Anything with good pictures. The opposite end of the scientific process is also easy to report on. When we know nothing about our subject, we classify everything we find, and see if the patterns tell us anything, be it animals or plants or minerals or the lights in the sky. There is no heavy theory yet, so it is easy to understand.

    I don’t think there is a problem in the reporting – just that some tales are harder to tell.

  • Dav_Daddy April 26, 2014, 3:12 AM

    I agree with most of the comments so far. Let me add that the higgs I believe was a better story. You had buildup with the machine being built, the headlines and hyperbole about creating a black hole, plus the search for the “God particle” I’m sure drew in people who normally wouldn’t have even heard about the experiment. You also have some character development as people from the field explain to the media why it is impossible for the LHC to create an Earth swallowing black hole.

    Second you had drama, when the LHC broke during early runs, outside commentators saying that the thing was going fail and be a waste of time & money.

    Finally you had the happy ending where the higgs is discovered champagne is sprayed and the Nobel prize is awarded. All the elements of a good story are there.

    Contrast that with inflation discovery which came out of left field I follow this stuff fairly closely and before now if I had heard of BICEP2 I certainly couldn’t have told what it stood for or anything about the experiment.

  • andyxl April 27, 2014, 4:16 AM

    Xavier has it about right, but there is also the human interest angle. Alan Guth needs to cry on TV, then the story will take off.

  • Aseem Chiplonkar April 28, 2014, 9:01 PM

    The reason Higgs boson was hyped so much because it was incorrectly termed as the “God particle”. So many news channel/papers initially covered it as a “God particle” news rather than anything.

    And currently in this world, anything related to “God”, only second to “sex” , sells!!

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