However, even from the start, there were reasons to doubt the BICEP2 results were exactly what they seemed. First, the size of their signal was much larger than the limits set by earlier observations; second, they had no decent data on cosmic dust, which can imitate or obscure the gravitational wave polarization signal. In recent months, the narrative has switched from “BICEP2 has discovered inflation!” to “BICEP2’s results are all dust!”, but I think both are just as wrong. The real story is still developing, and while it seems likely that dust is the majority of the BICEP2 signal, there might yet be gravitational waves hiding in it. (A particularly interesting idea is that the possible gravitational wave signal in the data could actually rule out inflation, at least in its typical versions.)
I bring this up for two reasons:
- I am leading a panel discussion on BICEP2 at the National Association of Science Writers/Committee for the Advancement of Science Writing (NASW/CASW) meeting next Monday. Johns Hopkins cosmologist Marc Kamionkowski, WIRED editor Betsy Mason, and I will discuss the challenges of reporting evolving stories, especially those with strong claims. A publication of no less stature than Nature has endorsed the session!
- The following week, I will be teaching an online class on Inflation and the Very Early Universe! In addition to BICEP2, we’ll talk about the odd observational facts that motivated inflation, the current models and problems with inflationary theory, potentially detectable consequences of inflation, and some alternative ideas. Sign up today!