Archive for January 30, 2015

The BICEP2 Bubble Bursts…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 30, 2015 by telescoper

I think it’s time to break the worst-kept secret in cosmology, concerning the claimed detection of primordial gravitational waves by the BICEP2 collaboration that caused so much excitement last year; see this blog, passim. If you recall, the biggest uncertainty in this result derived from the fact that it was made at a single frequency, 150 GHz, so it was impossible to determine the spectrum of the signal. Since dust in our own galaxy emits polarized light in the far-infrared there was no direct evidence to refute the possibility that this is what BICEP2 had detected. The indirect arguments presented by the BICEP2 team (that there should be very little dust emission in the region of the sky they studied) were challenged, but the need for further measurements was clear.

Over the rest of last year, the BICEP2 team collaborated with the consortium working on the Planck satellite, which has measurements over the whole sky at a wide range of frequencies. Of particular relevance to the BICEP2 controversy are the Planck mesurements at such high frequency that they are known to be dominated by dust emission, specifically the 353 GHz channel. Cross-correlating these data with the BICEP2 measurements (and also data from the Keck Array which is run by the same team) should allow the identification of that part of the BICEP2 signal that is due to dust emission to be isolated and subtracted. What’s left would be the bit that’s interesting for cosmology. This is the work that has been going on, the results of which will officially hit the arXiv next week.

However, news has been leaking out over the last few weeks about what the paper will say. Being the soul of discretion I decided not to blog about these rumours. However, yesterday I saw the killer graph had been posted so I’ve decided to share it here:

cross-correlation

The black dots with error bars show the original BICEP/Keck “detection” of B-mode polarization which they assumed was due to primordial gravitational waves. The blue dots with error bars show the results after subtracting the correlated dust component. There is clearly a detection of B-mode polarization. However, the red curve shows the B-mode polarization that’s expected to be generated not by primordial gravitational waves but by gravitational lensing; this signal is already known. There’s a slight hint of an excess over the red curve at multipoles of order 200, but it is not statistically significant. Note that the error bars are larger when proper uncertainties are folded in.

Here’s a quasi-official statement of the result (orginall issued in French) that has been floating around on Twitter:

BICEP_null

To be blunt, therefore, the BICEP2 measurement is a null result for primordial gravitational waves. It’s by no means a proof that there are no gravitational waves at all, but it isn’t a detection. In fact, for the experts, the upper limit on the tensor-to-scalar ratio  R from this analysis is R<0.13 at 95% confidences there’s actually till room for a sizeable contribution from gravitational waves, but we haven’t found it yet.

The search goes on…

UPDATE: As noted below in the comments, the actual paper has now been posted online here along with supplementary materials. I’m not surprised as the cat is already well and truly out of the bag, with considerable press interest, some of it driving traffic here!

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: There’s a news item in Physics World and another in Nature News about this, both with comments from me and others.