(Interstellar) Dust In The Wind…

The news has hit the blogosphere: the team behind the Planck satellite has released new dust measurements, and they seem to be a nail in the coffin of BICEP2’s observation of primordial gravitational waves.

Some background for those who haven’t been following the story:

BICEP2, a telescope in Antarctica, is set up to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background, light left over from the very early universe. Back in March, they announced that they had seen characteristic ripples in that light, ripples that they believed were caused by gravitational waves in the early universe. By comparing the size of these gravitational waves to their (quantum-small) size when they were created, they could make statements about the exponential expansion of the early universe (called inflation). This amounted to better (and more specific) evidence about inflation than anyone else had ever found, so naturally people were very excited about it.

However, doubt was rather quickly cast on these exciting results. Like all experimental science, BICEP2 needed to estimate the chance that their observations could be caused by something more mundane. In particular, interstellar dust can cause similar “ripples” to those they observed. They argued that dust would have contributed a much smaller effect, so their “ripples” must be the real deal…but to make this argument, they needed an estimate of how much dust they should have seen. They had several estimates, but one in particular was based on data “scraped” off of a slide from a talk by the Planck collaboration.

Unfortunately, it seems that the BICEP2 team misinterpreted this “scraped” data. Now, Planck have released the actual data, and it seems like dust could account for BICEP2’s entire signal.

I say “could” because more information is needed before we know for sure. The BICEP2 and Planck teams are working together now, trying to tease out whether BICEP2’s observations are entirely dust, or whether there might still be something left.

I know I’m not the only person who wishes that this sort of collaboration could have happened before BICEP2 announced their discovery to the world. If Planck had freely shared their early data with BICEP2, they would have had accurate dust estimates to begin with, and they wouldn’t have announced all of this prematurely.

Of course, expecting groups to freely share data when Nobel prizes and billion-dollar experiments are on the line is pretty absurdly naive. I just wish we lived in a world where none of this was at issue, where careers didn’t ride on “who got there first”.

I’ve got no idea how to bring about such a world, of course. Any suggestions?

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