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Mandeep Gill | |

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What BICEP2 Got Right

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015
The region of the sky in which BICEP2 polarization, shown as dotted lines over Planck data. (Credit: ESA/Planck Collab. M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS, Univ. Paris-XI)

The region of the sky in which BICEP2 polarization was seen; the region is shown as dotted lines over Planck data. (Credit: ESA/Planck Collab. M.-A. Miville-Deschênes, CNRS, Univ. Paris-XI)

There has been a lot made of the fact that Planck and BICEP2 jointly released a paper last week saying that BICEP2’s original claim of a discovery of proof that the very early universe expanded mindbogglingly quickly – something that’s called inflation – was “wrong.”

[Note here I’m not going to go over any of the physics or terminology about the experiment in this post, there are other great sources for that. I compiled a list of them here back in March 2014.  This particular post is largely discussing the sociology of how one goes about releasing results like this, and then the discourse in the community that goes on afterward.]

A lot of the way the press has breathlessly reported this result has left me feeling a bit discombobulated because the version of the paper that BICEP2 actually submitted to a journal last year had already walked back strongly a lot of the claims of their initial announcement just two short months previous.  The team had clearly started seeing hints in others’ Milky Way Galaxy (MWG) radio loop data, and hearing from others who were expert with the possibilities that unusual dust properties might explain most of the “B-mode polarization” signal they had seen.  So they did the prudent thing and backed away from their initial claims in March 2014.  For the record, I want to quote verbatim the last few sentences of that paper (this is from the last version, the one from June 2014):

“We have pushed into a new regime of sensitivity, and the high-confidence detection of B-mode polarization at degree angular scales brings us to an exciting juncture. If the origin is in tensors, as favored by the evidence presented above, it heralds a new era of B-mode cosmology. However, if these B modes represent evidence of a high-dust foreground, it reveals the scale of the challenges that lie ahead.”

In other words, although they very much hoped and thought they were justified in their analysis from all everyone knew about MWG dust properties previously, they also were quite well aware already that the signal they had detected might be sourced mostly from anomalous dust, more than 7 months before today.

Before going further, I want to note for full disclosure that I say all this as someone who has a number of friends on the B2 (BICEP2) team, all the way from grad students and postdocs to more senior folk.  They are all upstanding and hardworking scientists.  And they have definitely endured some harsh criticism from various not-so-softly-spoken colleagues, publicly.  It’s not my place to say how the entire back and forth should’ve been conducted, except I would argue for civility as much as possible always in all spheres, even for very charged issues. (President Obama always pushes for as well, too, btw.)

Along these lines, I want to make very clear that I do not at all like the phrasing “B2 was totally wrong!!!” — because they did see B-modes in a region of the CMB power spectrum that people never had, and this was and is a major advance, and constitutes the largest part of their published paper.  Where they stretched was in not believing that those B-modes could be fully explained by anomalous dust, which is what the more recent results are pretty clearly demonstrating (but that doesn’t, and can’t, rule out primordial B-modes from inflation at a smaller level still, underneath).

So yes, it can’t have felt very good to be any member of the team after there were big celebrations and they seemed so sure. But the B2 observation was totally consistent with all physics we understand currently, and there was no fundamental reason they could not have been right.  Just turns out that interstellar dust apparently can exist with very different properties than we’re accustomed to.

At the same time — I will say: if you’re going to go out there and make claims like that, you do have to be prepared for the fallout.

Should they have not gone out and made a big splash?  Maybe.  But they were very sure of their signal, they spent over a year crosschecking it in every possible way they could think of — it’s just that they just reached too far for the interpretation, assuming too much about the dust being ‘normal.’  And once the evidence started piling up against that interpretation, they very rapidly started backtracking, and coordinating with others to crosscheck their interpretation of the data, vs. sticking to their guns.  That is indeed the way real science always works, and moves forward.

So yes — they overreached.  But they were not wrong in their observations, and that is the most critical part of observational and experimental science, indeed, I would submit.

That is how we most collaboratively and collegially get to the truth of the Universe.



Announcing the launch of a way to ‘crowdfund’ physics!

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

FiatPhysica logo2I know physics research may seem like an unusual thing to “crowdfund” but I met Mark Jackson, the founder of Fiat Physica back in September, and really thought he was on to something. In a world where so much is becoming more democratic and “horizontally” organized via the Interwebs (c.f. the now more well-known term of “consensus process” from the last few years) vs. hierarchical, why shouldn’t citizens be able to directly fund physics research and outreach projects if they want to? I think the whole idea is pretty cool and really hope it takes off. I am heartened to see some of the projects already forging forward, as Mark describes below, as well as also already being backed by some household names in the astronomy world.

So, I’m going to let Mark “guestblog” here and am posting here something he sent me directly describing the launch of FP, and what it’s all about:

Crowdfunding astronomy through Fiat Physica

Recent years have witnessed two revolutions in approaches to scientific research: crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Crowdsourcing, in which many participants use the internet to contribute bits of content toward a larger goal, has allowed problems of previously insurmountable scale to be efficiently analyzed and solved. Astronomy has been at the forefront of this “citizen science” approach: Galaxy Zoo invited the public to classify galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which then led to the Zooniverse – a collection of citizen science projects in all areas of science and even humanities, currently boasting over one million members.

A related concept, crowdfunding, is simply crowdsourcing applied to fundraising. Rather than expect a single patron to donate the full amount of a budgetary goal, modest donations are made by many individuals. Such contributions are rewarded with “perks” ranging from high-resolution digital photographs to personal interaction with the research team, and at the highest levels even co-authorship and endowments. Crowdfunding platforms have proven tremendously successful, but there was not yet one specialized to astronomy –and it’s difficult to find such projects in the generic “anything goes” platforms.

Fiat Physica is the first crowdfunding platform specifically for physics and astronomy. Our motto – “Make Physics Happen” – is what we do, connecting physics enthusiasts to research groups seeking support for projects that will shape the future of humankind. The budget crisis has affected all areas of sciences but has been particularly harsh to physics and astronomy. In 2004 the observing program for the Hubble Space Telescope was nearly cancelled until public outcry ensured its continuing operation. In 2011 the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch a few years from now, with billions of dollars of cost already sunk into the project, faced a similar potential fate. While again the project was saved in significant part due to support from the public and scientists, the cost of its salvation is likely to be major cuts in future missions.

In our initial outlay of campaigns, Fiat Physica has already begun representing several highly diverse active physics and astronomy outreach and research projects. One is Telescopes to Tanzania. Building upon their previous crowdfunding success to create a Center for Science Education and Observatory, they are now seeking to train additional astronomy ambassadors  – each ambassador will then train dozens of students, who in turn can train others.  Another is working with the Foundational Questions Institute (FQXi) , which conducts rigorous scientific exploration into some of the most profound questions imaginable. These questions could include the nature of space, time and reality itself; investigations into black holes, wormholes and parallel dimensions.  Along somewhat similar but more traditional lines is the work we are doing with The Lagrange Institute of Paris, which is a center of learning on the cutting edge of astroparticle research: they were directly involved in the recent mapping of the first light from the Big Bang.  Finally I will mention Mountains of Stars, an astronomy and nature education outreach program through the Appalachian Mountain Club and Carthage Institute of Astronomy, aiming to train enough volunteers to reach 10,000 participants this year.

We provide campaign management and optimization, the white glove service of crowdfunding. To provide a destination where enthusiasts can engage with space concepts in an accessible, relevant, and enjoyable manner, we have a blog where we post articles that tie abstract concepts to concrete, everyday examples. We also sponsor monthly social gatherings in New York City to discuss astronomy in a relaxed environment. This is complemented by our very interactive social media profiles for the space-enthusiast community to keep abreast of the latest developments in the field.

The academic community has been solidly behind this enterprise, with many colleagues offering their help to improve the funding situation. Some of these serve on our Advisory Board: Neil Turok, Director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, who used his $100,000 TED Prize to launch the Next Einstein Initiative; Sandya Narayanswami, previously Director of Foundation Relations at Caltech; and Rocky Kolb, Dean of the Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago.

This is a tremendously exciting time in the astronomy community, and the public can now directly participate. We are looking forward to interacting with the entire physics and astrophysics communities through our website and social media. We are building and seeking relationships with foundations and companies who support fundamental physics research and education. The future of physics can no longer be determined behind lab doors and at private galas. We have built the missing link between the scientific community and the public.



Interstellar the movie is coming soon — and it’s a biggie

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

Hi there QD readers!

Instead of any further intro about me than my bio for the moment, I’m starting my contribution on this group blog right off with a first post about a movie that I think is going to become a fairly major deal culturally, in the coming weeks and months, and isn’t that partly what science blogging is kind of about — that is, identifying those scientific things that could be important especially to, and have an impact on, the future of our society..?

So, to jump right to it —  I’d been seeing bits of previews of this movie:

(Full description: Interstellar at IMDb )

here and there online, and then there was a post to the KIPAC Facebook page about its scientific accuracy for the black hole depiction, with well-known physicist Kip Thorne’s involvement:


I then saw the preview fully through a couple of days ago, and read more about the background and story arc and reactions to the film — and am impressed, and inspired already by what I’ve seen.

I can see this is a film in the spiritual tradition of Carl Sagan and Contact, and it may be the first movie I go see in a theater in a long while.

It’ll be out on Nov 7, and I’m looking forward to it.

Of course — I can tell I will have some problems with it too already — like with the ideas of indulging in escapism and finding another world vs. doing the hard work of fixing the only one we have — and are going to have, for a long, long time yet, as Carl himself used to point out, which can be read in e.g. the penultimate paragraph of the famous Pale Blue Dot talk, or seen as part of a short 6min clip put into more context here:

But with all that in mind, I am stoked about the positive aspects of what this one is about: inspiring us to be adventurers, showing strong familial bonds, and getting us to act in coordination as a species because of its apocalyptic vision of what the Earth will become if we do not.

So — anyone else also getting enthused about it, just yet..? 🙂