It looks like 2015 has started with a lesson for progress in science, though perhaps not in the sense we’d hoped. A paper is expected to hit Arxiv this week (already available here) demonstrating that last year’s much-hyped result from the BICEP2 telescope, where scientists claimed to see the signature of inflation in their CMB polarisation map, is in fact a non-detection.
While the new paper hasn’t yet been made public, its contents have been widely discussed on- as well as offline. It will describe results from the analysis to correlate the BICEP2 data with that from the Planck cosmic microwave background satellite to better constrain the signal from our own Galaxy’s dust emission, which mimicks that expected from inflation. In attempting to disentangle the signal from these two effects, the authors of the original BICEP2 team had made some assumptions that at the time were already identified to be the major weakness of their analysis.
We always knew the Planck data would hold the answer, and this is the analysis that’s now being published.
Too bad that this enormous result couldn’t be confirmed, and I’ve heard many people grumble about the BICEP2 team for their major media push. But this is how science progresses – we have a model, we try to test it, new data contradicts old data, we keep pushing with better instruments, better methods, more stringent analysis, and eventually we arrive at some consensus. And perhaps someone wins a big prize somewhere down the line.
There are virtually no “eureka moments” in science research – it’s hard graft, trial and error. It’s nice to see new results get attention in the media, but it’s also important to keep talking about the ups and downs of scientific progress. In the mean time, the quest for evidence of our Universe’s birth continues.