If It Holds Up, What Might BICEP2’s Discovery Mean?

Well, yesterday was quite a day, and I’m still sifting through the consequences.

First things first.  As with all major claims of discovery, considerable caution is advised until the BICEP2 measurement has been verified by some other experiment.   Moreover, even if the measurement is correct, one should not assume that the interpretation in terms of gravitational waves and inflation is correct; this requires more study and further confirmation.

The media is assuming BICEP2’s measurement is correct, and that the interpretation in terms of inflation is correct, but leading scientists are not so quick to rush to judgment, and are thinking things through carefully.  Scientists are cautious not just because they’re trained to be thoughtful and careful but also because they’ve seen many claims of discovery withdrawn or discredited; discoveries are made when humans go where no one has previously gone, with technology that no one has previously used — and surprises, mistakes, and misinterpretations happen often.

But in this post, I’m going to assume assume assume that BICEP2’s results are correct, or essentially correct, and are being correctly interpreted.  Let’s assume that [here's a primer on yesterday's result that defines these terms]

  • they really have detected “B-mode polarization” in the “CMB” [Cosmic Microwave Background, the photons (particles of light) that are the ancient, cool glow leftover from the Hot Big Bang]
  • that this B-mode polarization really is a sign of gravitational waves generated during a brief but dramatic period of cosmic inflation that immediately preceded the Hot Big Bang,

Then — IF BICEP2’s results were basically right and were being correctly interpreted concerning inflation — what would be the implications?

Well… Wow…  They’d really be quite amazing. Continue reading

BICEP2: New Evidence Of Cosmic Inflation!

[For your reference if you can't follow this post: My History of the Universe, and a primer to help you understand what's going on today.]

I’m still updating this post as more information comes in and as I understand more of what’s in the BICEP2 paper and data. Talking to and listening to experts, I’d describe the mood as cautiously optimistic; some people are worried about certain weird features of the data, while others seem less concerned about them… typical when a new discovery is claimed.  I’m disturbed that the media is declaring victory before the scientific community is ready to.  That didn’t happen with the Higgs discovery, where the media was, wisely, far more patient.

The Main Data

Here’s BICEP2’s data!  The black dots at the bottom of this figure, showing evidence of B-mode polarization both at small scales (“Multipole” >> 100, where it is due to gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization) and at large scales (“Multipole” << 100, where it is potentially due to gravitational waves from a period of cosmic inflation preceding the Hot Big Bang.) All the other dots on the figure are from other experiments, including the original BICEP, which only put upper bounds on how big the B-mode polarization could be.  So all the rest of the points are previous non-detections.

From the BICEP2 paper.

From the BICEP2 paper, showing the power in B-mode polarization as a function of scale on the sky (“Multipole”).  Small multipole is large scale (and possibly due to gravitational waves) and large multiple is small scale (and due to gravitational lensing of E-mode polarization.)   The black dots are BICEP2’s detection; all other points are non-detections by previous experiments.  (Earlier discoveries of B-mode polarization at large Multipole are, for some reason, not shown on this plot.)  The leftmost 3 or 4 points are the ones that give evidence for B-mode polarization from cosmic effects, and therefore possibly for gravitational waves at early times, and therefore, possibly, for cosmic inflation preceding the Hot Big Bang!

Continue reading

A Primer On Today’s Events

The obvious questions and their brief answers, for those wanting to know what’s going on today. If you already know roughly what’s going on and want the bottom line, read the answer to the last question.

You may want to start by reading my History of the Universe articles, or at least having them available for reference.

The expectation is that today we’re going to hear from the BICEP2 experiment.

  • What is BICEP2?

BICEP2, located at the South Pole, is an experiment that looks out into the sky to study the polarization of the electromagnetic waves that are the echo of the Hot Big Bang; these waves are called the “cosmic microwave background”.

  • What are electromagnetic waves?

Electromagnetic waves are waves in the electric and magnetic fields that are present everywhere in space.  Visible light is an electromagnetic wave, as are X-rays, radio waves, and microwaves; the only difference between these types of electromagnetic waves is how fast they wiggle and how long the distance is from one wave crest to the next.   Continue reading

My New Articles on Big Bang, Inflation, Etc.

I haven’t written in detail about the history of the universe before, but with an important announcement coming up today, it was clearly time I do so.

Let’s start from the beginning. How did the universe begin?

You may have heard that “the Big Bang theory says that the universe began with a giant explosion.” THIS IS FALSE. That’s not what the original Big Bang Theory said, and it’s certainly not what the modern form of the Big Bang Theory says. The Big Bang is not like a Big Bomb. It’s not an explosion. It’s not like a seed exploding or expanding into empty space. It’s an expansion of space itself — space that was already large. And in the modern theory of the Big Bang, the hot, dense, cooling universe that people think of as the Big Bang wasn’t even the beginning.

How did the universe begin? We haven’t the faintest idea.

That’s right; we don’t know. And that’s not surprising; we can trace the history back a long way, an amazingly long way, but at some point, what we know, or even what we can make educated guesses about, drops to zero.

Unfortunately, in books, on websites, and on many TV programs, there are many, many, many, many, many descriptions of the universe that say that the Big Bang was the beginning of the universe — that the universe started with a singularity (one which they incorrectly draw as a point in space, rather than a moment in time) — and that we know everything (or can guess everything) that happened after the beginning of the universe. Many of them even explicitly say that the Big Bang was an explosion, or they illustrate it that way — as in, for instance, Stephen Hawking’s TV special on the universe. [Sigh --- How are scientists supposed to explain these ideas correctly to the public when Stephen Hawking's own TV program shows a completely misleading video?!] This is just not true, as any serious expert will tell you.

So what do we actually know? or at least suspect?

Out of the fog of our ignorance comes the strong suspicion — not yet the certainty — that at some point in the distant past (about 13.7 billion years ago) the part of the universe that we can currently observe (let’s call it “the observable patch” of the universe) was subjected to an extraordinary event, called “inflation”.

We suspect it. We have some considerable evidence. We’re looking for more evidence. We might learn more about this any day now. Maybe today’s our day.

Stay tuned for the announcement of a “Major Discovery” out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics later today.  And then stay further tuned for the community’s interpretation of its reliability.

Getting Ready for the Cosmic News

As many of you know already, we’re expecting some very significant news Monday, presumably from the BICEP2 experiment.  The rumors seem to concern a possible observation of “B-mode polarization in the cosmic microwave background radiation”, which, to the person on the street, could mean:

It would also be cool for at least one other reason: it would be yet another indirect detection of gravitational waves, which are predicted in Einstein’s theory of gravity (but not Newton’s), just as electromagnetic waves were predicted by Maxwell’s theory of electricity and magnetism.  Note, however, it would not be the first such indirect detection; that honor belongs to this Nobel-Prize-winning measurement of the behavior of a pair of neutron stars which orbit each other, one of which is a pulsar.  (Attempts at direct detection are underway at LIGO.)

Of course, it’s possible the rumors aren’t correct, and that the implications will be completely different from what people currently expect.  But the press release announcing the Monday press conference specifically said “significant discovery”, so at least it will be interesting, one way or the other.

If you have no idea, or a limited idea, of what I just said, or if you’re not sure you have all the issues straight about the universe’s history and what “Big Bang” means, fear not: I have written the History of the Universe, designed for the non-expert.  Well, not all of the history, or all of the universe either, but the parts you’re going to want to know about for Monday’s announcement.  Those of you who are still awake are invited to read what I’ve put together and send comments about the parts that are unclear or any aspects that look incorrect.  I’ll have another post in the morning hours, and then the big announcement takes place just after noon, East Coast time.

Higgs Experts: A Small But Important Correction to a Previous Post

I have to admit that this post is really only important for experimentalists interested in searching for non-Standard Model decays of the Higgs particle.  I try to keep these technical posts very rare, but this time I do need to slightly amend a technical point that I made in an article a few weeks ago. Continue reading

Beyond Human Visibility

A couple of interesting scientific stories are making the rounds today, and worth a little physics and general science commentary. The first reminds us just how incredibly limited our sensory perceptions are in telling us about the world, by forcing us to imagine how it may look to animals whose perceptions are slightly different. The second reminds us just how little we know about our own planet. Continue reading

Dark Matter: Unseen, But Yet Again in the Limelight

The past two weeks have been busy!  I was on the road, consulting with and learning from particle experimenters and theorists at Caltech and the University of California at Irvine. And I’ve been giving talks: at the University of California Santa Barbara (for the Joe Polchinski Fest conference), at the University of California at Irvine, and yesterday in Boston at M.I.T. The Santa Barbara talk was only semi-technical, and is on-line.  The latter two, much more technical, focused on the two big projects that I completed this fall (one on whether searches for supersymmetry have been comprehensive, one on looking for unusual things the Higgs particle might do.)

While this has all been going on, there have been two big stories developing in dark matter searches, and those of you who already have heard about them will have noticed I have not written much about them yet.  (In fact I only wrote about one of them, and very partially.)  These stories are important, and also have some subtleties, which I want to make sure I understand fully before I try to explain them.  After consultations with some of the experts (including Kev Abazajian of U.C. Irvine and Tracey Slatyer of M.I.T) I’m a lot closer to that point, so an explanation will come soon, after I’ve done a bit more reading and learning.

For the moment let me just note that there are two completely different excesses —

  • one in X-ray photons (specifically photons with energies of about 3500 eV) noticed by two groups of scientists in a number of different galaxies, and
  • one in gamma ray photons (specifically photons with energies of 1 – 10 GeV [GeV = 1,000,000,000 eV]), extracted with care by one group of scientists from a complex set of astrophysical gamma ray sources, coming from a spherical region around, and extending well beyond, the center of our own galaxy.

These seem to the experts I’ve spoken with to be real excesses, signs of real phenomena — that is, they do not appear to be artifacts of measurement problems or to be pure statistical flukes. This is in contrast to yet another bright hint of dark matter — an excess of photons with energy of about 130 GeV measured by the Fermi satellite — which currently is suspected by some experts, though not all, to be due to a measurement problem.

But even if the experts are right about that, it still leaves the big question: are these excesses signals of previously unknown astrophysical phenomena, or are they signals of decaying or annihilating dark matter particles?  New astrophysics would be interesting too, but probably not Nobel-worthy, as dark matter would be.  There are arguments against astrophysical explanations in both cases, but they don’t seem by any means airtight yet.

Since the two excesses are completely different, it is highly likely that at least one of them is due to astrophysics.   [You can invent types of dark matter that would give you both signals -- but it would take a small miracle for two signals of the same dark matter particles to show up in the same year.]  In fact, it is quite likely, in my mind, that they’re both due to astrophysics, not particle physics. But dark matter might show up in this way, so these excesses have to be explored fully.  It could be that this is the moment when dark matter is finally revealed.  If so — would the real dark matter excess please stand up?