What happens when you’re wrong

Posted Jun 4, 2014 by bn

Hi everyone,

planning on recording the next episode this sunday. really looking forward to it.

but I thought it was worth making a note…

A lot of people are talking about BICEP2.

We spoke about their tentative findings on episode 45: gravitational waves from the inflationary epoch were causing light in the cosmic microwave background to twist and spiral and curl in a detectable way.  a very big deal, for reasons we discuss on the show.

the new news is that maybe the BICEP2 people will have to scale back their claims. It turns out that they didn’t have a very sophisticated picture of where the dust around our galaxy was (it was still being mapped at the time) so when we apply the more sophisticated picture of dust, it *looks* like most of the pinwheel light comes from dust instead of gravitational waves.

the question I am here to answer is: what am I going to do about it. Take the episode down? Add a blerb at the start of the episode about how everyone sucks?

I am not going to do anything about it.

  1. First off, Dr. Katie Mack mentioned this possibility during the episode. Dr. Mack is a lot more diligent and restrained with her public expressions of exuberance than I am, and it has served her well. Do you want to know why professional scientists never go on the tv news, trumpeting their victories? Do you know why you’ll never be able to pin a physicist down and get them to tell you that something is “impossible”? It’s because stuff like this happens sometimes, and you don’t want to get caught with your pants down.
  2. Science is all about revision, and that means that people will make incorrect arguments sometimes, and that we will catch it whenever we can. It would have been glorious if the revised galactic dust map said “Yes BICEP2 Was RIGHT!”, but BICEP2’s analysis attempted to account for the dust as best it could at the time, and sometimes better data says that you’re not as right as you thought you were.
  3. Is it not  EXTRAORDINARY  that we live in times like these, where the data is coming in at such an amazing rate and at such high quality?
  4. The physical mechanisms we described on the show were all fascinating, and were all more or less correct. I mean, we’re not (as) sure if (that) inflation happened (as we were a month ago), but if it DID happen, our episode 45 discussed WHY it would cause swirlo patterns in the sky.  it was still a fascinating show AND it was kind of awe inspiring how sophisticated our theoretical understanding of the event is!

So yeah, I’m not going to do anything. In 100 years, all our episodes will be outdated. This particular one just went sour 10 or 20 years before I expected it to. Science is like that.


p.s. There is a trend (is it a trend?) in science outreach to rely heavily on news to bring in and hook science aficionados. String theory? naming the higgs boson the “god particle”? I like revolutions in theory and experiment as much as the next guy, but science isn’t a horse race. It’s slow, and sometimes researchers get ahead of themselves, and other research drags them back to their place.

So when I choose my shows, I *usually* only choose topics which are part of the well established canon of explanations. That is to say, If you asked physicists in the field how something worked, they would mostly agree. The kind of thing that gets printed in undergraduate textbooks, you know? I have been deliberately staying *away* from the forefront of physics, because it’s a tree where branches are constantly being pruned away or dying of old age. Not that it’s not exciting, or that the people involved are not super clever… It is and they are… but from the audience perspective, finding out that a topic you heard about is not true.. it’s kind of disheartening? it makes you want to give up on paying attention, you know?

And that’s why we stick to topics which are pretty well established both theoretically and experimentally. As I said above, I expect most of our explanations to be usurped in the next 100 years… but that’s plenty of time.

So why did I break with my pattern and cover BICEP2? it’s because the inflation model IS ALMOST canon in cosmology. It’s ubiquitous and *pretty much* accepted, theoretically. Like the Higgs boson, there’s still theoretical room for it NOT to exist, but less work would be involved for everyone if it DID.  I have resisted, since the start of the show, doing inflation as a topic because it had  not been verified experimentally. The BICEP2 results gave Inflation the observational verification it needed. (also, it involved a lot of great physics!)

TL:DR “Meh. that’s science for ya.”