Inflation Claim Crumbles into Dust
The much-hyped proof of cosmic inflation a few months ago has been discredited, revealing more about how science is done in the media age than about reality.
Back in March (3/17/14), champagne was served in the home of Andrei Linde after young scientists brought him proof of cosmic inflation. A strong polarization signal “consistent” with inflation was declared by the BICEP2 team in Antarctica after their analysis of data from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation. News reporters went wild with the “biggest cosmological discovery in decades.” There was talk of a Nobel Prize for the three gurus of inflation (Guth, Linde, and Starobinsky), and indeed, those three shared the $1 million Kavli Prize shortly afterward. (See “Inflation Concocted to Avoid a Young, Perfect Universe,” 7/01/14).
By May and June, some reporters were backpedaling, taking a “wait and see” attitude, as data from the ESA’s Planck mission, forthcoming in fall, might bridle the enthusiasm. Those were the wise reporters. Newly-announced Planck results show a strong likelihood that BICEP2 was flexing its own weakness. The signal, it turns out, was most likely due to dust in our local galaxy. Adrian Cho writes for Science Magazine:
A crumbling claim that appeared to reveal the workings of the big bang may instead say more about how science is done in an age of incessant news coverage. In March, researchers working with a specialized telescope at the South Pole, known as BICEP2, claimed that by studying the afterglow of the big bang—the so-called cosmic microwave background—they had discovered direct evidence that the newborn cosmos had undergone a bizarre exponential growth spurt known as cosmic inflation. Now, researchers from the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft have shown that radiation from dust in our galaxy accounts for some, and possibly all, of the BICEP signal. Curiously, the BICEP and Planck teams took very different tacks in publicizing their results. The BICEP team held a press conference and issued a bold press release. The Planck team did not—because they did not want the press to jump to the conclusion that they had definitively proved the BICEP result wrong.
The remaining uncertainty may allow the BICEP team to adopt its own “wait and see” attitude and still hold out hope. Michael Slezak at New Scientist is not so charitable, putting the worst possible spin on the Planck results:
Inflation is dead, long live inflation! The very results hailed this year as demonstrating a consequence of inflationary models of the universe – and therefore pointing to the existence of multiverses – now seem to do the exact opposite. If the results can be trusted at all, they now suggest inflation is wrong, raising the possibility of cyclic universes that existed before the big bang.
The proof of inflation has become proof of non-inflation? That’s what David Parkinson of the University of Queensland is now claiming from his own analysis of the results. Slezak reports: “Counter to what the BICEP2 collaboration said initially, Parkinson’s analysis suggests the BICEP2 results actually rule out any reasonable form of inflationary theory.” But there are several inflationary models. How many of them have been ruled out? “Most of them, to be honest,” replied Parkinson.
The smart money is now betting on the Planck bandwagon, leaving BICEP in the dust. As if it couldn’t get worse for the inflation bandwagon, Slezak brings in another hostile witness:
Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, who helped develop inflationary theory but is now scathing of it, says this is potentially a blow for the theory, but that it pales in significance with inflation’s other problems.
Steinhardt says that the models are oversimplified, for one thing, and for another, once inflation starts, they can’t stop it. It breaks up into an infinite number of universes, where anything and everything can happen. So instead of providing understanding to science, it “predicts everything”—anything that is conceivable happens somewhere. Isn’t that a strength, rather than a weakness? No, Steinhardt explains:
Steinhardt says the point of inflation was to explain a remarkably simple universe. “So the last thing in the world you should be doing is introducing a multiverse of possibilities to explain such a simple thing,” he says. “I think it’s telling us in the clearest possible terms that we should be able to understand this and when we understand it it’s going to come in a model that is extremely simple and compelling. And we thought inflation was it – but it isn’t.”
It hardly seems desirable, therefore, for the BICEP2 to cling to any remaining hope that further refinements of the Planck results will support inflation. Who would want a theory that does the opposite of what science is supposed to do?
We’re wondering why Guth & Linde didn’t get the Ig Nobel Prize. Has there ever been a crazier idea than inflation put forth in the name of science? Actually, yes; New Scientist reminds us of Hugh Everett, a sophomoric (wise fool) atheist who misused his God-given brain power to suppose that every quantum choice spins off another universe (the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics). That’s another example of what we shall call the Guth Goof: concocting a solution to a problem that makes the problem infinitely worse. Read again how Alan Guth (Grand Unified Theory Huckster) ran from the light of a perfect, young universe into the darkness of his own imagination (7/01/14; read also 5/17/14 to see he’s not alone).