In less than an hour, scientists will announce their discovery of the Big Bang’s echo

by Matthew Cobb

For the last few days, Tw*tter has been abuzz with speculation about a press conference around a ‘major discovery’ that’s being held today at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, at noon US Eastern Standard Time (16:00 GMT/UTC).  There will be a live-stream of the presser from 11:55 am EST/15:55 (as of now, the site has crashed…). If you can understand it, you can get all the raw data here.

It seems most likely that the researchers will announce that the BICEP2 experiment – based in Antarctica – has detected primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background. These would have been produced just after the Big Bang – the ‘echo’ of that event that set in motion everything that is or ever will be. And when they say ‘just after’, that’s exactly what the cosmologists and astronomers mean, for this would be a sign of the inflationary phase that followed the Big Bang, at around 10-34 seconds. That is, 0.00000000000000000000000000000000001 seconds after… The nature of this incredibly faint signal will tell us something about this key phase in the history of the universe.

I won’t pretend I understand all the cosmology (and I don’t feel bad about that – what do the cosmologists know about maggots?) but I know it’s exciting. If you want to know more, I recommend reading The Guardian’s explanation from last Friday when they blew the story wide open, or if you are more technically-inclined, this post by the Official Website Physicist™ Sean Carroll.

If—like me—you’re going to be glued to the press conference, and in particular if you’re in a group that’s watching, liven up an already exciting event by printing out these handy bingo cards, replete with all the expected clichés…

Please feel free to pitch in below, particularly if you have expert knowledge in this field. [JAC: I can't pretend to understand the significance of this, either, even though I've read the relevant posts, so reader feedback would be appreciated, especially to distinguish this new finding from the older, Nobel-recognized discovery of the microwave radiation that also echoed the Big Bang.]

[UPDATE: Stanford has just posted this great video, in which Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo of the BICEP2 experiment popped  round earlier on today to see Professor Andrei Linde, one of the scientists who developed much of the theory behind inflation, to tell him he was right. His response – and that of his wife – is charming. (The ‘5 sigma’ they are talking about is the significance level of the results, which is amazingly high because the data are so clear. As one of the BICEP2 researchers said during the press conference – ‘we were looking for a needle in a haystack; we found a crowbar’.)

JAC: I’ve posted a picture, noted by reader Kevin in the comments, of the timeline of the evolution of the universe, a NASA creation taken from Wikipedia:

800px-CMB_Timeline75

133 Comments

  1. ROO BOOKAROO
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    /Sub/

    • jimroberts
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

      +

      • francis
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:10 am | Permalink

        //

        • still learning
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

          =(..)=

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      Let’s see if I can channel Ant:

      🔭💣🍻

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        You need an Ant sign like we have for batman.

        • Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

          Especially on a day like today, when we could really use our resident quantum mechanic….

          b&

          • NewEnglandBob
            Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

            Does a quantum mechanic only use a ratchet wrench?

            • Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

              That’s a favorite tool, I’m sure…but they also have been known to use hammers, too.

              Very, very, very, very big hammers.

              …hammers with the teeniest tiniest of points, to be sure, but goddamned fucking huge hammers nonetheless.

              b&

      • Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:05 am | Permalink

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 18, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

          Clever!

        • Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          Shouldn’t that be more substantial for something so momentous?

          Like, say…

          🌊

          b&

  2. ROO BOOKAROO
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Forgot to notch the boxes for follow-up

  3. George
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Jerry – not much to understand here – God did it!

    I saw a talk at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years back by Michael Turner and Rocky Kolb. Also George Smoot at Fermilab shortly after he won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. I believe this is one of the experiments they had great hope for. Looks like they were right.

    I try to get an inkling of what they are doing. An understanding may be a bit much to ask for.

    • George
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Lots of good stuff to read about this discovery. I think first in line for Nobel Prizes are Alan Guth and Andrei Linde. Are they the fathers of the inflation theory?

      John Kovac is the leader of the BICEP-2 team which did the work. Good interview with him here:

      http://www.nature.com/news/how-astronomers-saw-gravitational-waves-from-the-big-bang-1.14885

      But a sad piece of the story is the suicide of his mentor Caltech astrophysicist Andrew Lange who lost his battle with depression in 2010.

      The BICEP-2 experiment shares a facility in Antarctica with the South Pole Telescope. Nice pic here –

      http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/Proof-of-Inflationary-Universe-To-Be-Announced-Monday-250522521.html

      The SPT is led by John Carlstrom who was Kovac’s adviser at the University of Chicago.

      • Kevin
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:35 am | Permalink

        I have followed, cursorily, the work of Guth and Linde, they are well deserving if this research pans out. Very well deserving, and so is, the experimentalist, obviously.

        • George
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          But which experimentalist(s)? There will be over a hundred names attached to this. Fermilab put out papers with over a thousand names. The LHC may get into five figures.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:21 am | Permalink

        And some say Starobinsky, which had similar ideas I think but publishing in Russia at the time (-79?) didn’t reach the international community. Kovac would be a better fit in my mind, but the Nobel Committee did their choice with Cern vs LHC, still no prizes for groups.

    • George
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      Interesting that BICEP2 stopped collecting data in 2012. It ran from 2010-12. BICEP1 ran from 2006-2008. BICEP3 starts up next Antarctic summer.

      According to Wikipedia, the institutions involved in the Keck Array and BICEP are –
      “The institutions involved in the various instruments are Caltech, Cardiff University, University of Chicago, Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, University of Minnesota and Stanford University (all experiments); UC San Diego (BICEP1 and 2); National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), University of British Columbia and University of Toronto (BICEP2, Keck Array and BICEP3); and Case Western Reserve University (Keck Array).”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BICEP2

      So a lot of the best people in the world pouring over this data for two years. I think they probably got it right.

      • Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Lots of great news and links today. Thanks. My apologies over the one small nit in your last sentence, George:

        http://www.dailywritingtips.com/poring-over-pore-and-pour/

        • George
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          That is embarrassing. I wish there was an edit feature on comments. Sometime the link between your brain and your fingers just does not work well.

          • George
            Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            Of course maybe I did mean that scientists were dumping buckets of water on the data.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

            I would’ve made that very mistake and I did think it was like pouring your eyes over data. I guess I won’t write that now that I know better! The things you accidentally learn!

            • Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

              Hahaha… I actually dislike this usage of the word ‘pore’. I always conjure up images of info seeping into my body through my pores, via perhaps osmosis.

          • Posted March 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

            No need to be embarrassed. It’s a very common mistake. As I age, I seem to make more and more of these.

      • Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

        This is probably a very dumb question, but is there cosmological reason to start collecting the data during the Antarctic summer, or is it done solely out of deference to the severity of the Antarctic climate?

        • George
          Posted March 18, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

          Data is always being collected – there are advantages in the winter given climate conditions. However, construction work is done in the summer. Not just because it is warmer – more correctly not as insanely cold – but deliveries are only made in the summer.

  4. W.Benson
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Loved the Bingo cards!

    • W.Benson
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      I’m just an ignorant biologist and, assuming I don’t get a headache, will only watch.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

      Passed that link onto the tub’s Safety Officer. They’ll make conference calls so much more entertaining, when properly populated with corporate policy buzz words.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

        Could also be the basis for a great drinking game.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          I did mention “Cards against Humanity” (which I first heard of as an entertainment of the Wincanton Branch of the Omnian Temperance Society ; being Omnians, you can guess where they hold their strategy meetings) ; this seems to me to have great potential as a pub game. Unfortunately, I’m somewhat separated from pubs at the moment to try it in.

  5. gbjames
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    sub

  6. Mark Perew
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    It’s already on the Nature website.

    http://www.nature.com/news/

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Thanks for that.

      Next up: Quantum Gravity.;-)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:33 am | Permalink

        Well, this _is_ quantum gravity. The primordial quantum fluctuations are most likely gravitons, not classical fluctuations. The latter may arise in some (contrived, I think) theories, but the former is straight up physics. QG!

        Moreover, the energy scale is a a mere factor 100 from the Planck scale of where QG must rule anyway. Enticingly it is the GUT scale where the rest of the physics merge. Perhaps QG?

        Also, I hear the best candidate for such a strong signal (large tensor-to-scalar ratio) would come from axions. At such fields, perhaps trans-Planckian, string theory kicks in: these axions lives like strings twisted around brans. QG!

        Finally, a physicist blogged that such strong signals would set such a low limit for “large extra dimensions” of string theory, proposed to predict the weakness of gravity, that they can be ruled out. (Large dimensions -> weak ‘knitted’ brane structures -> large fluctuations prohibit weak string structures. I think.) QG!

        • js
          Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:03 am | Permalink

          For a second there I thought that QG meant ‘Queue God’.
          But that’s what a few Coopers pale ales will do to you.

          • John Scanlon, FCD
            Posted March 18, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            Cheers!

            (raising another Coopers Pale)

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

          Thanks, Torbjörn.

          I guess what intrigues me the most with this research ( as far as I understand it ) is the possibility of a direct link between GR and QM. The potential predictive power of this might be mind-boggling.

          Also, I hear the best candidate for such a strong signal (large tensor-to-scalar ratio) would come from axions. At such fields, perhaps trans-Planckian, string theory kicks in: these axions lives like strings twisted around brans. QG!

          Are they certain that the true value of r is so high yet? I may be a bit cynical, but I can’t wait for these results to be reproduced in the coming years.

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Thanks!
      This is all so exciting. It makes me all jiggly inside, like Feynman would say.

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

        I feel that way too, though just barely grasping a faint idea of what is being said. Momentous!

        • Posted March 18, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

          Reading Sean Carroll’s excellent book, The Particle at the End of the Universe, as well as watching his talk on the same subject have immensely helped me. Some of it is still way over my head, but I’ve learned it’s all about fields and breaking symmetry.
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=RwdY7Eqyguo&feature=endscreen

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 18, 2014 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

            Thank you. I’ve seen the book mentioned here before; it’s time I looked into it. Literally. ;) And I’m sure the vid will be most helpful.

            • Posted March 19, 2014 at 8:20 am | Permalink

              The video is excellent and very helpful…. my best friend directed me to it.

      • Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:07 am | Permalink

        That must be the gravity waves…

        /@

  7. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    I will have to bone up on this, but my vague understanding is that detecting gravitational waves is something like taking the most sensitive measurement ever done, X 1/trillion. We should also keep an eye on the Starts With a Bang site. Hope he posts something.

    • aljones909
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      Mark, my understanding is this is an indirect detection of gravity waves. They are detecting the effect of the gravitational waves in the CMBR. Direct detection is the aim of the LIGO project. The sensitivity of the detectors for the LIGO project is the equivalent of getting the distance to the nearest star correct to 1 nanometre. They’ve not detected anything so far.

  8. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    On the significance (assuming that the result is as predicted!):

    Modern Big-Bang cosmology is based on an “inflationary” episode when the universe was ~ 10^-33 secs after the BB, when the universe expanded by a factor ~ 10^30.

    This is based on esoteric and speculative physics, but is needed to fix certain problems that would otherwise plague BB models.

    However, these inflationary models have so far done a good job of predicting the spectrum of temperature fluctuations in the microwave background (photons that emerged 380,000 years after the Big Bang).

    These inflationary models also predict polarisation of the microwave background, produced by gravity waves in the inflationary era.

    The (expected) result is that these have now been detected. If so it is strong evidence for the “inflationary” era, and would change it from being esoteric and speculative physics to reasonably-well-established physics.

    Studying this polarisation should then allow tying down the different inflationary models.

    Further, since the “multiverse” is a prediction of various “chaotic” inflation models, this result could put multiverse models on a much sounder empirical footing.

    • darrelle
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      One of the many very cool, and useful, things this data will allow is the first empirically derived value for the energy density of the universe at its earliest era.

  9. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The big significance, as I understand it, is that, up to today, we only have empirical evidence of what happened after inflation, to a period an entire second after the instant of the Big Bang. But the BICEP2 results, presumably, are empirical evidence of the early stages of the inflationary period itself, which would not only confirm inflation but provide ways to understand which inflationary models should be discarded and which should be further pursued.

    It would be somewhat akin to the discovery of DNA with respect to evolution. We knew evolution happened and we had a pretty good idea of how it worked and about genetics and all that, but we didn’t have a clear view into the actual nuts-and-bolts mechanism until Watson and Crick. Further, being able to examine DNA let us delve deeper in unexpected ways.

    …assuming the rumors hold up….

    b&

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      I think experimental proof of inflation is more like finding out how DNA actually came into existence. Sort of like finding the road map or at least the majority of it for how life began from chemical-physical processes. But either analogy works to show just how important this result is, if confirmed.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      It would be somewhat akin to the discovery of DNA with respect to evolution.

      I remember having a good few hours to digest the implications of the 1996 McKay et al “Martian Fossils” paper – I had arranged to drive the length of the country that day, so had time to think and drink coffee, but not to surf – and I considered that, if demonstrated, the purported claims would be a Copernicus-level change in our viewpoint. Not only would we no longer be the Suns of D*g in the centre of the universe created for us, but if McKay et al 1996 had been true, we’d no longer have been the only (known) planet in the universe with life on it. McKay et al turned out to be a damp squib, unfortunately, but I think that the analysis was a worthwhile exercise in what would be truly epoch-defining, compared to the Copernican Revolution.
      Interesting though I find this, it’s not vitally important, as it’s well telegraphed. We know that we have gravity, we know that we have an earlier hotter, denser state of the universe, we’ve known that we don’t know where Heisenberg’s hat is (to a particular degree) for a long time, we’ve known that the CMB is smooth ; the inflation field and that whole scenario follow directly from those well-known elements.
      This does, possibly, make the ekpyrotic universe (I do like that word, and use it whenever possible) a bit more implausible, but I bet it’s not even a killer punch on that.
      If we’re really to be present at an event which will be remembered in the history of humanity until we blow ourselves to smithereens (or drown in our own wastes – our choice), we really need to get those probes out to the icy moons. Mars looks pretty likely to be dead, and always have been dead. I do still harbour visions of one of the rovers turning a corner and seeing a fossil with a clear trigonal symmetry – because we don’t have nowt like that on our planet, to be a source of ejecta fossils, a la McKay. But it is getting increasingly implausible. (In good geological tradition, such paradigm-busting specimens are always found 2km after the death of the last camel, on a collapsing rock face. With scorpions. Or in this case, Spirit is fated to make the discovery, after a low-probability dust-cleaning storm, and a Mars-quake to get it un-stuck.)

      • Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        That’s why I went with the DNA analogy. We knew it had to be there, we knew how it had to work, we knew where to look, we had a really good idea of what it was going to have to be like, we knew many of the essential properties…but we just hadn’t yet found it. There was lots we couldn’t really even speculate about until after we found it, and the particulars of what we found drove all sorts of really fascinating and novel research, opening doors we only vaguely hoped might be there. But, in hindsight, it was inevitable that somebody was going to discover it at just about that time. It’s significant, profound, monumental even…but not revolutionary, even if it does trigger not a few minor coups and uprisings.

        I’m starting to think that extraterrestrial life will be something like that, too…but a lot will depend on whether or not we share a common ancestor with it. There’re lots of ways that could go, depending on the age of the last common ancestor (if related) or the biochemical building blocks (if unrelated).

        Sadly, I think it’s increasingly unlikely anybody alive as I type these words will live to see confirmation of extraterrestrial life. Space exploration is shrinking rapidly already and unlikely to survive long in a post-peak-oil world, and it’ll take quite a while to build up sufficient alternative energy resources after the ensuing depression-to-end-all-depression. Assuming we as a species even survive said depression….

        b&

      • Diane G.
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        “ekpyrotic”

        Dang, too long for Scrabble.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted March 18, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          [counts on fingers]
          [adds toes]
          Just as well it stopped at 21. I’m typing in a public office and didn’t need to go any further.
          I hadn’t thought of that aspect to it. But I will now. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s likely to be in the “Shorter” for a while yet.

          • Diane G.
            Posted March 18, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

            And another appendage was so handy…

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Another angle is that although the cosmic microwave background was ‘smoothed’ out by the early inflation period, the CMB is really light released from the universe at the time that atoms could form. This was bout 380,000 years after the B.B. We cannot see back to a period earlier than that, since the CMB is like a wall that we cannot see through.
      An exciting prospect is that we might one day (today?) be able to make out a pattern in gravitational waves in the CMB. The waves emerge from the much younger universe, so they offer a way to let us look back much farther than the CMB can.

      • darrelle
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

        Yes, that is exactly what this work was about. Discovery and measurement of primordial gravitational waves in the CMB. They have apparently, to a high degree of probability, been able to distinguish B-mode polarizations caused by inflation from other possible sources, such as gravitational lensing.

        As has been quoted around a bit already, “We went looking for a needle in a haystack and found a crowbar.”

      • Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        Depends on what you mean by, “see.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t even see the CMB itself; it’s already so many levels away from direct observation that the added level of indirection from polarization doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

        If you think of the CMB as akin to a cosmic-scale photographic negative, what the BICEP2 team has just done is equivalent to measuring the shadows and the specular reflections on the shiny surfaces in the picture and, from that, reconstructed the configuration of the studio lighting — something photographers do almost instinctively when critically evaluating photography. That is, you don’t need a wide-angle from-the-ceiling-corner overview of the studio to “see” the whole stage; you can see it just fine in the finished photograph itself. Maybe not in the detail you’d hope for, but plenty “good enough” to re-create the same effect for yourself — and that’s all that a cosmological model is, really, when it comes right down to it.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

          I was thinking similar while trying to understand all this. It would be like trying to reconstruct a photo all from shadows and reflects with distortions of those reflections and shadows.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:41 am | Permalink

      “we only have empirical evidence of what happened after inflation”.

      Noo… I don’t think it is correct, the primordial fluctuations of the putative inflaton field, which later seeded galaxy formation, are from the same time and show up in the CMB spectra too.

      But these fluctuations are more indicative of physics as you say, even seen in isolation. They tell of the energy scale and perhaps of the inflaton (if it exists) field strangth.

      It is the combination of the inflaton spectral index behavior, the existence of the graviton spectra and also its behavior (which I haven’t seen simply checked in the BICEP2 papers) that would amass enough evidence to start to sway those who, rightly, say that inflation physics makes funny demands. (Perhaps trans-Planckian field strengths, aka quantum gravity physics and exotic such at that.)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:44 am | Permalink

        It is true however, that we can perhaps also see these gravitons directly in LIGO. (No mass – infinite lifetime.)

        The corresponding inflatons (if they exists) are long gone. (Massive particles, short lifetime after inflation stopped. In fact, they are the best mechanism for “reheating” (heating) the big bang universe, if I understand correctly.)

  10. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Buzzword Bingo for live astrophysics … if only the tub’s internet would stand up to live feed, and I didn’t have work running at the same time.
    And the site is still crashed. They plainly couldn’t have anticipated the (uh) astronomical demand.

  11. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    It really is refreshing to read incredibly informed and intelligent people saying “I can’t pretend to understand the significance of this”.

    • Diane Langworthy
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been thinking the same thing! I love this site.

  12. gerard52
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    This is truly a exciting discovery.

  13. Greg Esres
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    ” they blew the story wide open”

    Er…”expanded very rapidly”

  14. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I am intrigued, know next to nothing, but will be waiting for the announcement

  15. Draken
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Arguably, cosmologists have at some time seen maggots in their kitchen garbage bin, but have you ever seen a big bang there? Checkmate, biologists!

    • JBlilie
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      :)

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

      Are the maggots moving away from each other? If so, there was a maggot singularity in the past!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Yuck!

  16. Posted March 17, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    “…what do the cosmologists know about maggots?…”
    ___

    What sad, experience-impoverished lives cosmologists have. :-)

  17. still learning
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    This gives me goose bumps! Knowledge is addicting and a major new discovery causes euphoria. Science rocks!

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Science rocks because it never ends.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes; the first thing I saw when I read this was, “gee, I wonder what religion discovered today?”

  18. Charles E. Jones
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    And note the big contrast with the faithful: Linde was always worried about being fooled, by potentially erroneously believing in his work simply because the ideas were beautiful.

    The bottom-line concern of evidence-based thinkers: Are my ideas TRUE?

    • darrelle
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:32 am | Permalink

      Exactly.

      A major cause of religious-like beliefs seems to be merely a defense mechanism for dealing with the angst of not knowing if what you think you know is accurate. A good scientist, rationalist, materialist, what-have-you, just learns to deal with it.

      • Sastra
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Good point. I recently asked a friend of mine who is deep into spiritual ‘metaphysics’ (she claims that the material world is just an illusion) whether she had any way of recognizing if she was wrong about this, or if this bothered her. Does accuracy matter?

        She seemed to translate this into a question/statement about HER, as if I was telling her she should fear making mistakes and become neurotic. So her response wasn’t really to my point. It was more along the line of how she deals with criticism and self-doubt in a general sense, to embody peace and acceptance for herself and other.

        Way to miss the point.

        I await her reaction to BICEP2. Every time physicists get excited about any new discovery involving “energy” she and her friends try to float this by me as possible confirmation for the primacy of vitalism/consciousness. Alas. I am disappointingly closed minded, every time, because I never think this is where the physicists are going and the science of spirituality is now become some sort of Live Option.

        • darrelle
          Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          “It was more along the line of how she deals with criticism and self-doubt in a general sense, to embody peace and acceptance for herself and other.”

          Humans seem to filter everything through a “pride module” first. Then, maybe, it gets passed on to other “cognitive modules” for further consideration. But first we seem to react to how we think our social standing will be affected, how the image we think others have of us will be affected. We tend to take everything personally. Often, of course, it is personal, but very often it isn’t.

          It takes awareness and practice to mitigate that apparently autonomic reaction. At least, I know I struggle with that. Lstening, or reading, to any discussion between other people sure does seem to confirm it.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

            I filter everything through a “humiliation filter”. How stupid am I going to look if I get this wrong or do this badly? It can lead to some neurosis but as I’ve aged, it actually works pretty well. :)

        • Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          I’m starting to think that the woo crowd thinks of energy in the sense that physicists use it as the exact same “stuff” as the “energy” you get from drinking a strong cup of coffee. If there were a simple way to differentiate between those two different meanings and explain how they’re entirely different phenomena (though, of course, not perfectly unrelated — just largely irrelevant), that might go a long way to bringing the wooists back down to Earth.

          …maybe….

          b&

    • DianeAlliLangworthy
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Yes! I appreciated that too.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      Old Physics Joke:

      You are a theorist when you make a theory you believe is true but no one else does.

      You are an experimentalist when you do an experiment and you do not think it is true, but everyone else does.

  19. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Just reading the time period, this puts our knowledge way closer to the moment of the birth of the universe. Should be interesting!

  20. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    Loving the video. “What! Can you repeat that…. .2!?!”

    • Diane G.
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes! So wonderful that they thought to record the moment. Also puts paid to the notion of scientists as cold and emotionless.

  21. moarscienceplz
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    “The ‘5 sigma’ they are talking about is the significance level of the results, which is amazingly high because the data are so clear.”

    I think 5 sigma is the physicists’ own self-imposed limit of certainty. When the Higgs boson was being looked for, they didn’t declare it “discovered” until they had 5 sigma significance.

    • josh
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      They are both correct. 5 sigma is a significance level that corresponds to something like a 1 in a million chance that statistical fluctuations of the background could fake the signal you’ve seen.

      Physicists use 5 sigma as the definition of ‘discovery’. 3 sigma is sometimes said to define ‘evidence’.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, 5 sigma is very stringent!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:51 am | Permalink

      5 sigma is appropriate when the peak you are looking for is not entirely defined by theory (such as place and form). It takes out the “look elsewhere” increased likelihood for random data looking like the peak.

      So 5 sigma of “look elsewhere” is ~ 3 sigma of evidence.

      Astronomers want go to 7 sigma or more I think when they see entirely new phenomena. It’s the “look, superman” effect. =D (Sagan’s “extraordinary evidence”.)

      This was ~ 6 sigma in some tests. 7 before accounting for the imprecision of the dust, adding 1 sigma uncertainty still. They will get better data real soon.

  22. Leigh Jackson
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Could be that a beautiful experiment has confirmed two beautiful theories and taken us from thinking we know what’s going on to knowing we know what’s going on – within the limitations of the theories. Then we move on to the next answerable big questions, as opposed to non-answerable metaphysical species.

  23. darrelle
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Wonderful and awesome!

  24. Alex
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Andrei and Renata’s reactions are so droll!

  25. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    That brought a tear to this atheist’s eye, to see the life’s work of a greyhaired researcher confirmed. Wish Carl Sagan was still here to share (and ‘splain!) the wonder.

  26. DianeAlliLangworthy
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    The young scientist going to the elder scientist with the news is indeed charming. Such a wonderful human moment — like little kids running to show a parent or teacher.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      I loved that too. It showed the fundamental equality in science and the way it builds knowledge and stature at then same time!

      The video’s a nice counterbalance and complement to Dawkins’ story of the respected scientist whose Grand Theory was proven wrong by some whippersnapper hurling new data at a conference … and the old one stood up to thank the young one for correcting his error.

      And sometimes those Respected Old Scientists turn out to be right.

  27. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Terrific- gravitation waves detected. I will go to a sports stadium and try to start a wave back.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:17 am | Permalink

      Forgot sub

  28. Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Even after being told this confirmation of his theory, the old professor explains that he wants to make sure that this is bona fide, that he is “not being tricked, not believing something just because is it beautiful.”

    THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is what will always distinguish science from religion. The search to really understand things as they are, rather than to confirm how you want things to be, is the fundamental incompatibility b/t science and religion.

    • Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Very well put!

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      The insufferable quality of religious people is that they know what they know because it is the case. Nevermind what they typically claim is usually metaphysical and consequently arbitrary.

      Empirical evidence of inflation puts new meaning into the religious deepity:

      “How do you know, you weren’t there?!”

      Well, baby, get yourself a telescope and a microwave dish and you can see it for yourself.

  29. George
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    A sad story from five years ago – the UK was working on the Clover project which was trying to find B-mode polarization which BICEP2 found. It was cancelled for budgetary reasons.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2009/090405/full/458689a.html

    Actually, the South Pole Telescope announced that it had found B-mode polarization last July. BICEP2 nailed it down and found primordial B-mode polarization of the cosmic microwave background.

    Well – you know science is not really worth funding. Just ask any Tea Partier. But that new overpriced fighter, the F-35, which costs $200MM a copy, yes let us get lots of those. And we will use it to combat what threat that our current aircraft cannot handle?

    When Robert Wilson, the founding director of Fermilab, was asked what it had to do with national defense, his reply was –
    “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture… It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

    Those scientists who worked at the South Pole and led to today’s announcement are doing more than science – they remind us that our species is worthy of survival. Can religion do that?

    • darrelle
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Sure. Xianity has it that all of creation is a stage created just for super-special us. Of course, it also has it that we are born scum good for nothing but hell. That we are too stupid to figure out how to behave or how to even look out for ourselves, so we need a super-omni-being to carry us along. But we are so undeserving of help that to get it to help us we have to constantly abase ourselves before it, and forever proclaim that we are nothing without it. That all that is good in us, in all of existence, is due to it, and that all that is bad in us is soley from us, and that all the bad things we endure are our just desserts.

      Yeah, on second thought I think you are correct.

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      No religion cannot do that; it never has nor shall it. However, there is a balance that civilization must endure to make great strides for our fundamental understanding of the universe. Building a better plane is part of science and it is part of the same goal.

      If I can show that a plane can carry weapons that can deliver 10 times the conventional fire power as a normal plane for the same weight, my weapons would be incorporated into the design of the plane. I can postulate what that type of technology is, and can directly show that it would improve societies ability to power civilization. The benefit would be tremendous.

      If I show that a 1 mm thick material equal in weight to fine linen can protect a soldier from 50 mm shell from point blank range…every soldier would be wearing it. I have no idea what this material is but you can be assured innumerable forms of the technology would help provide our society with benefit.

      The list is virtually endless, from medicine to computers, from energy conservation to ironman suits, developments in one area are cohesively connected to other areas. The tragedy is that people frequently manufacture the need for superiority out of fear.

  30. Kevin
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    A pictoral representation of inflation:

    The scope of inflation has had a profound effect on the evolution of the universe. If confirmed, this is an impressive and important result.

  31. Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Here is a news item from the CFA: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2014-05

    • Kevin
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      This is great summary. Thanks.

      • Posted March 17, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

        Oh, good… the site is working now. It kept crashing earlier from traffic.

  32. still learning
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    sub

  33. Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Anyone who watches this video and does not sense the atmosphere of a miracle and wonder in it, must be emotionally dead. Compare *that* to the story of a guy who supposedly turned water into wine (when, most probably, it was the other way around).
    Thanks for posting!

    • George
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      Not sure if miracle is a good word. Nothing miraculous about the discovery – just hard work by a lot of people. Starting with Andrew McKellar back in 1941, really taking off with Penzias and Wilson at Bell Labs in 1964, Smoot and Mather’s Nobel in 2006 and many more in between – all culminating in today’s announcement. Although culminate is not a good word – we will go on from here.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_microwave_background_radiation

      I think transcendent and wondrous are OK.

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted March 17, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

        Constructive and potent might be a way of thinking about. The more I read about it, the more questions arise.

        In a very satisfying way it’s novel new knowledge….which reminds me to tip the hat to the power of the web.

        It’s live science. :-)

  34. jimhexis
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Best line: “I ordered it thirty years ago. Finally it arrived.”

  35. George
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    For those looking for a less technical explanation of today’s announcement, Phil Plait does a pretty good job:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/03/17/evidence_of_inflation_astronomers_detect_gravitational_waves_from_the_early.html

  36. Posted March 17, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Magnificent achievement! Loved the video of Linde and his wife hearing the news.

    Also, I hope certain commenters notice the role that quantum fluctuations play in the early universe–see the diagram that Jerry posted. Maybe next time we argue about the role of quantum mechanical indeterminacy in the formation of the solar system, some of you will remember this.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted March 17, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Maybe next time we argue about the role of quantum mechanical indeterminacy in the formation of the solar system, some of you will remember this.

      Careful not to inflate different fields disproportionately there.;-)

  37. Filippo
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    sub

  38. marksolock
    Posted March 17, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  39. Alex
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    While it is true that Linde was involved with the inflation thing in the beginning, his wife Renata Kallosh is an important figure in theoretical physics in her own right, and should be referenced by name.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      2nded.

  40. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:22 am | Permalink

    May uninformed layman take, after revising the new universe I am no looking at:

    The observations are likely real.

    The attending scientists were impressed, and the data checks out on _3_ instruments! BICEP1, BICEP2 and “Keck” (bad name, since there is also a Keck optical telescope). The spectra is not a loose cable.

    It’s not dust or local interference either, the spectra behaves like CMB expectations and not like those. Points of contention: Few “l modes” used. The spectra of lensing gravitation is weaker than other measurements.

    The dust is not well understood yet, adds 1 sigma, so expect that the initial 7 sigma, now ~ 6 after dust removal, gets better real soon. Also, improved BICEP3 starts 2015.

    The observations are new physics.

    More precisely, it is quantum physics:

    The primordial quantum fluctuations are most likely gravitons, not classical fluctuations. The latter may arise in some (contrived, I think) theories, but the former is straight up physics. QG!

    Moreover, the energy scale is a a mere factor 100 from the Planck scale of where QG must rule anyway. Enticingly it is the GUT scale where the rest of the physics merge. Perhaps QG?

    Also, I hear the best candidate for such a strong signal (large tensor-to-scalar ratio) would come from axions. At such fields, perhaps trans-Planckian, string theory kicks in: these axions lives like strings twisted around brans. QG!*

    Finally, a physicist blogged that such strong signals would set such a low limit for “large extra dimensions” of string theory, proposed to predict the weakness of gravity, that they can be ruled out. (Large dimensions -> weak ‘knitted’ brane structures -> large fluctuations prohibit weak string structures. I think.) QG!

    *And: Axions are a dark matter candidate, but mostly they would provide us the symmetry break between matter and anti-matter that the Standard Model can’t.

    The observations are consistent with Planck et cetera.

    True, the simplest inflation models may go. Too high energy, field strength and need for “spectral running” and “tensor” gravity modes.

    But the “spectral running” is smack on what Planck (and I think WMAP) predicted at 1-2 sigma resolution unless I’m mistaken, ~ – 0.015. (I had to check for myself, so…)

    The observations are Nobel worthy.

    Guth, Linde, perhaps Starobinsky (first published – in cold war Soviet, so no one outside knew). Not the BICEP2 group, see the LHC prizes.

    The observations implies (but not yet firmly predicts) that our universe is an oddball. Or, for a geometer, an odd ball.

    The seen energy scale provides inflation and quantum gravity gravitons, but may also provide particle field unification (“GUT”), matter/antimatter symmetry breaking, and dark matter. (See the “axions” above.)

    So perhaps no new physics needed between the Standard Model particle energy scale (~ 10^2 GeV) and inflation “particle” energy scale (~ 10^16 GeV). That is extreme finetuning, akin the cosmological constant finetuning.

    The seen fluctuation strength at low modes will likely provide fuel on the “low mode asymmetry”, the nearly 3 sigma evidence (or not) speaking of a lopsided universe on large scales. (Or so I already read on a physicist blog.) More evidence for low likelihood becoming reality!?

    Maybe we are seeing the inflationary multiverse in action…

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

      Oops. Unintended LOLspeak in the beginning.

      Also, on Noble worth: we need to wait for confirmation from other groups. (Re mistakes in the analysis.) Planck perhaps, soon to release their own polarization data. (Which may be why this was released now.)

      Finally, it was impressive to see how this group could keep calm/quit for the last year as they prodded the data for errors!

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 4:12 am | Permalink

      More oops: I misunderstood. The lensing observations were _stronger_ than expected, and with reference to their own model.

      If that signal leaks into the primordial (“low l”) modes, it may take out the signal. But their clear window above the South Pole, without dust and interference from auroras, is rather small so that may be the problem with “high l” modes – large angle features. Again, the dust et cetera is still poorly modeled as I understand it.

      Cause for contention, certainly.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 4:15 am | Permalink

        From Strassler: “However, this point [high l high amplitude] was addressed by the BICEP2 folks in their presentation. Their view is that (1) the high data points are not very statistically significantly high, and (2) with new data that they haven’t released from their third-generation experiment, they don’t see the same effect.”

    • derekw
      Posted March 21, 2014 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      “Extreme fine-tuning?” The IDers will love it!

  41. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    For those of you who ( like me ) can’t get enough of this, here’s Lawrence Krauss’ take on it:

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2014/03/a-scientific-breakthrough-lets-us-see-to-the-beginning-of-time.html


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