Archive for May 14, 2014

That BICEP Rumour…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 14, 2014 by telescoper

So there’s been another twist in the story of BICEP2 and whether or not it has actually detected primordial gravitational waves.

This time it is a blog post on a site called Résonaances by Adam Falkowski who alleges that the BICEP2 team has made a pretty astounding error in their analysis of the data. This suggestion has been picked up by a couple of fairly influential science news sites (here and here). The BICEP2 team deny having made any such error and are quoted in the news stories defending their results in robust terms.

Before I continue let me make it clear that I stand by the scepticism I have expressed on this blog about this result (which, in fact, is shared by many of my colleagues in the cosmology fraternity1). The problem is that the measurement is made at a single frequency (150 GHz) and it is by no means clear on that basis whether it has the black-body spectrum that would characterize it as being associated with the cosmic microwave background rather than some sort of foreground emission. At 150 GHz the major worry is that polarized emission from galactic dust might contribute significantly to the signal, and might even swamp any primordial contribution.

Anyway, the blog post states that:

To estimate polarized emission from the galactic dust, BICEP digitized an unpublished 353 GHz map shown by the Planck collaboration at a conference.  However, it seems they misinterpreted the Planck results: that map shows the polarization fraction for all foregrounds, not for the galactic dust only (see the “not CIB subtracted” caveat in the slide). Once you correct for that and rescale the Planck results appropriately, some experts claim that the polarized galactic dust emission can account for most of the BICEP signal.

Here’s the map concerned as it appeared in the conference talk as presented on the blog post:


The point about this is that dust emission increases with frequency, so that at 353 GHz it would be expected to dominate the primordial cosmic microwave component. However, if one can measure the polarized component of this emission at high frequency (where it is larger and consequently easier to measure) then one could try to estimate the polarized contribution at the lower frequency measured at 150 GHz by BICEP2 by assuming it has a similar polarized fraction. This is actually just about the only way to estimate the foreground contribution.

Unfortunately in this map there is an additional unpolarized foreground arising from the Cosmic Infrared Background (CIB) which comprised integration dust emission from extragalactic sources. Including this component makes the polarized fraction look lower than it would if it were separated out and only the more highly polarized Galactic contribution considered. In other words including the CIB leads to an underestimate of the polarized fraction and consequently an underestimate of the foreground contamination at 150 GHz.

So now there are three issues:

  1. Did BICEP2 actually use this digitized image to estimate the polarized foreground for their experiment?
  2. Did they make the error of which they have been accused?
  3. Does this invalidate the BICEP2 announcement?

The answer to (1) is that I don’t know for sure but it’s certainly possible that they did. It sounds a pretty ropey approach, but the Planck data are not publicly available so they had to improvise. Even if (1) is the case, I am not at all sure that (2) is true. They may have, but in their responses to the suggestion they have denied it. It seems such a silly error that I’d be surprised, but that doesn’t in itself make it untrue.

However, even if (1) and (2) are the case that doesn’t mean that (3) is true, i.e. it does not imply that the entire analysis presented by BICEP2 is wrong. They have several different estimates of the foreground contribution using other methods so the entire result clearly does not stand or fall on the basis of the use of this particular map in a particular way.

I repeat what I’ve said before in response to the BICEP2 analysis, namely that the discussion of foregrounds in their paper is disappointing. I’d also say that I think the foreground emission at these frequencies is so complicated that none of the simple approaches that were available to the BICEP2 team are reliable enough to be convincing. My opinion on the analysis hasn’t therefore changed at all as a result of this rumour. I think BICEP2 has definitely detected something at 150 GHz but we simply have no firm evidence at the moment that it is primordial. That will change shortly, with the possibility of other experiments (specifically Planck, but also possibly SPTPol) supplying the missing evidence.

I’m not particularly keen on the rumour-mongering that has gone on, but then I’m not very keen either on the way the BICEP2 result has been presented in some quarters as being beyond reasonable doubt when it clearly doesn’t have that status. Yet.

Rational scepticism is a very good thing. It’s one of the things that makes science what it is. But it all too easily turns into mudslinging.

Note: 1 I use the word “fraternity” in the sense given in the Chambers Dictionary as “any set of people with something in common” rather than as “an all-male N American college association”. Cosmology is neither “all-male” nor exclusively American and I did not mean to imply either by my use of English.