It was announced in headlines worldwide as one of the biggest scientific discoveries for decades, sure to garner Nobel prizes. But now it looks likely that the alleged evidence of both gravitational waves and ultra-fast expansion of the universe in the big bang (called inflation) has literally turned to dust.
Last March, a team using a telescope called Bicep2 at the South Pole claimed to have read the signatures of these two elusive phenomena in the twisting patterns of the cosmic microwave background radiation: the afterglow of the big bang. But this week, results from an international consortium using a space telescope called Planck show that Bicep2’s data is likely to have come not from the microwave background but from dust scattered through our own galaxy.
Some will regard this as a huge embarrassment, not only for the Bicep2 team but for science itself. Already some researchers have criticised the team for making a premature announcement to the press before their work had been properly peer reviewed.
But there’s no shame here. On the contrary, this episode is good for science. This sequence of excitement followed by deflation, debate and controversy is perfectly normal – it’s just that in the past it would have happened out of the public gaze. Only when the dust had settled would a sober and sanitised version of events have been reported, if indeed there was anything left to report.
That has been the standard model of science ever since the media first acknowledged it. A hundred years ago, headlines in the New York Times had all the gravitas of a papal edict: “Men of science convene” and so forth. They were authoritative, decorous and totally contrived.
That image started to unravel after James Watson published The Double Helix, his racy behind-the-scenes account of the pursuit of the structure of DNA. But even now, some scientists would prefer the mask to remain, insisting that results are announced only after they have passed peer review, ie been checked by experts and published in a reputable journal.
There are many reasons why this will no longer wash. Those days of deference to patrician authority are over, and probably for the better. We no longer take on trust what we are told by politicians, experts and authorities. There are hazards to such scepticism, but good motivations too. Few regret that the old spoonfeeding of facts to the ignorant masses has been replaced with attempts to engage and include the public.
But science itself has changed too. Information and communications technologies mean that not only is it all but impossible to keep hot findings under wraps, but few even try. In physics in particular, researchers put their papers on publicly accessible pre-print servers before formal publication so that they can be seen and discussed, while specialist bloggers give new claims an informal but often penetrating analysis. This enriches the scientific process and means that problems that peer reviewers for journals might not notice can be spotted and debated. Peer review is imperfect anyway – a valuable check but far from infallible, and notoriously conservative.
Because of these new models of dissemination, we were all able to enjoy the debate in 2011 about particles called neutrinos that were alleged to travel faster than light, in defiance of the theory of special relativity. Those findings were announced, disputed and finally rejected, all without any papers being formally published. The arguments were heated but never bitter, and the public got a glimpse of science at its most vibrant: astonishing claims mixed with careful deliberation, leading ultimately to a clear consensus. How much more informative it was than the tidy fictions that published papers often become.
Aren’t some premature announcements just perfidious attempts to grab priority, and thus fame and prizes? Probably. But it’s time we stopped awarding special status to people who, having more resources or leverage with editors, or just plain luck, are first past a post that everyone else is stampeding towards. Who cares? Rewards in science should be for sustained creative thinking, insight and experimental ingenuity, not for being in the right place at the right time. A bottle of bubbly will suffice for that.
What, then, of gravitational waves? If, as it seems, Bicep2 never saw them bouncing from the repercussions of the big bang, then we’re back to looking for them the hard way, by trying to detect the incredibly tiny distortions they should introduce in spacetime as they ripple past. Now the Bicep2 and Planck teams are pooling their data to see if anything can be salvaged. Good on them. Debate, discussion, deliberation: science happening just as it should.