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

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.

Watch Live Webcast: Secrets of the Universe’s First Light

The BICEP telescope located at the south pole. Image Credit: CfA / Harvard

Just a month ago came the news of the first direct evidence of primordial gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of spacetime — providing the first direct evidence the Universe underwent a brief but stupendously accelerated expansion immediately following the Big Bang.

This almost unimaginably fast expansion when the Universe was only a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second was first theorized more than three decades ago, and the announcement last month was so monumental that some are comparing it to the discovery of the Higgs boson.

On April 18, 20:00 UTC (3 pm EDT, 1:00 pm PDT, two of the scientists who made this groundbreaking discovery will come together for a conversation with two of the pioneering leaders of the field. Together, they will examine the detection of a distinctive, swirling pattern in the universe’s first light, what the swirl tells us about that monumental growth spurt, and the many implications on the way we understand the universe around us.

You can watch below:

The hangout will include members of the BICEP2, which made the discovery, as well as two notable scientists in this field, John Carlstrom and Michael Turner.

Cosmologists Cast Doubt on Inflation Evidence

Some physicists still have questions on the true origin of the BICEP2 findings...

It was just a week ago that the news blew through the scientific world like a storm: researchers from the BICEP2 project at the South Pole Telescope had detected unambiguous evidence of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background, the residual rippling of space and time created by the sudden inflation of the Universe less than a billionth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang. With whispers of Nobel nominations quickly rising in the science news wings, the team’s findings were hailed as the best direct evidence yet of cosmic inflation, possibly even supporting the existence of a multitude of other universes besides our own.

That is, if they really do indicate what they appear to. Some theorists are advising that we “put the champagne back in the fridge”… at least for now.

Theoretical physicists and cosmologists James Dent, Lawrence Krauss, and Harsh Mathur have submitted a brief paper (arXiv:1403.5166 [astro-ph.CO]) stating that, while groundbreaking, the BICEP2 Collaboration findings have yet to rule out all possible non-inflation sources of the observed B-mode polarization patterns and the “surprisingly large value of r, the ratio of power in tensor modes to scalar density perturbations.”

“However, while there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves, it is important to demonstrate that other possible sources cannot account for the current BICEP2 data before definitely claiming Inflation has been proved. “

– Dent, Krauss, and Mathur (arXiv:1403.5166 [astro-ph.CO])

The history of the universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com
The history of the universe starting the with the Big Bang. Image credit: grandunificationtheory.com

Inflation may very well be the cause — and Dent and company state right off the bat that “there is little doubt that inflation at the Grand Unified Scale is the best motivated source of such primordial waves” —  but there’s also a possibility, however remote, that some other, later cosmic event is responsible for at least some if not all of the BICEP2 measurements. (Hence the name of the paper: “Killing the Straw Man: Does BICEP Prove Inflation?”)

Not intending to entirely rain out the celebration, Dent, Krauss, and Mathur do laud the BICEP2 findings as invaluable to physics, stating that they “will be very important for constraining physics beyond the standard model, whether or not inflation is responsible for the entire BICEP2 signal, even though existing data from cosmology is strongly suggestive that it does.”

Read more: We’ve Discovered Inflation! Now What?

Now I’m no physicist, cosmologist, or astronomer. Actually I barely passed high school algebra (and I have the transcripts to prove it) so if you want to get into the finer details of this particular argument I invite you to read the team’s paper for yourself here and check out a complementary article on The Physics arXiv Blog.

And so, for better or worse (just kidding — it’s definitely better) this is how science works and how science is supposed to work. A claim is presented, and, regardless of how attractive its implications may be, it must stand up to any other possibilities before deemed the decisive winner. It’s not a popularity contest, it’s not a beauty contest, and it’s not up for vote. What it is up for is scrutiny, and this is just an example of scientists behaving as they should.

Still, I’d  keep that champagne nicely chilled.

Source: The Physics arXiv Blog


Want to read more about the BICEP2 findings from actual physicists? Read more in an article by Peter Coles, see what Matthew Francis has to say in his article on arstechnica here, and watch a video by Sean Carroll on PBS News Hour.