June 24, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Cosmic Inflation Proof Is on the Ropes

The highly-acclaimed evidence of inflation theory announced in March may only be a signal from local dust.

The BICEP2 team appears to be hedging on its confident claim three months ago that evidence for inflation had been found in the cosmic microwave background radiation (3/17/14).  The signal from gravitational waves may, instead, just be caused by intervening dust closer to home.  After several critics, notably Paul Steinhardt, made their views known, renewed scrutiny was focused on the original paper (5/12/14).  Now, in the first peer-reviewed paper in Physical Review Letters, the discoverers appear poised for a falsification, even though they still stand by their claim.

The news media have been increasingly airing doubts since May:

  • No evidence for or against cosmic inflation (Ron Cowen in Nature, May 29)
  • Big bang finding challenged (Ron Cowen in Nature, June 3)
  • Big Bang blunder bursts the multiverse bubble (Paul Steinhardt in Nature, June 3)
  • Gravitational-wave team admits findings could amount to dust (Ron Cowen in Nature, June 20)
  • BICEP2 researchers publish nuanced account of stunning patterns in the microwave sky (PhysOrg)
  • Cosmic inflation: Confidence lowered for Big Bang signal (Jonathan Amos in the BBC News)
  • BICEP2 paper published—with big caveat (Adrian Cho in Science Magazine, June 19)
  • Big Bang breakthrough team back-pedals on major result (New Scientist)
  • Big Bang breakthrough team allows they may be wrong (PhysOrg)
  • Grand Cosmological Claim Crumbles? (National Geographic)

Believers in inflation are hastening to argue that their theory doesn’t depend on BICEP2 results.  For instance, Andre Linde, father of “chaotic inflation,” was interviewed in New Scientist to make the case that inflation doesn’t need BICEPs to lift it.  Back in March, however, Linde had been treated to a surprise party by members of BICEP2 who told him inflation had been confirmed.  In late May, Linde with co-champions of inflation Alan Guth and Alexei Starobinsky received the Kavli Prize (gold medals and $1 million to share) for their theory of inflation, even though BICEP2’s findings “have now been called into question.”  (The article did not say whether the judges had been influenced by the BICEP2 announcement in their decision.)

The team’s only remaining hope is that data from the Planck telescope will constrain the sources of dust to a higher degree in a few months, allowing more solid inferences to be made.

Back in 2/21/05, Guth explained that inflation was an “invention” and an evolving “framework” for interpreting data, not a discovery of science.  It was concocted to explain away the flatness problem and the horizon problem (major issues in cosmology at the time, and still today).  He basically swept these problems out the door with his preposterous proposal that the universe inflated by 26 orders of magnitude in a trillion trillion trillionth of a second after the big bang (2/21/09).  With no testable physical mechanism for this one-time miracle, and no evidence supporting it, he championed the ultimate ad-hoc theory rescue device with the ultimate free lunch.

Too bad, though, that his proposal had a serious flaw.  Getting a universe to inflate such that matter and life could exist requires proposing even more improbable initial conditions than the original big bang it tried to explain (5/11/06), and those initial conditions were unfathomably improbable already.

So for this, Guth (Grand Unified Theory Huckster) gets a gold medal and a million bucks.  This is income inequality with finesse.




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