Cosmology Turns into Pseudoscience

BICEP2 Collaboration –the Hot Air Merchants from the South Pole

bicep2It is a little suspicious when a discovery is declared worth a Nobel Prize the very same day of the discovery by the discoverers. The BICEP2 claim that gravitational waves have been found was breaking news this week.

Let us have brief a look at gravitational wave detection—since the 1960s, this has always been a tricky business. Its history is beautifully described in Gravity’s Shadow by Harry Collins—this is probably the field with the highest number of retracted claims. Huge efforts were undertaken to prove the existence of gravitational waves directly, but all big sience experiments such as LIGO have been unable to confirm gravitational waves to this day. One may even wonder why none of the various anomalous signals were interpreted as gravitational waves in the meantime.

Ultimately, this is a merit of the very clear methodology and definition of the wave signal in laboratory experiments—it must show up in different places at fixed times, determined by the wave velocity c. This difficulty can hardly be appreciated highly enough—it is an almost unsourmountable barrier for artifacts to be falsely declared as signals. Unfortunately, the cosmic microwave background does not contain such a barrier.

One persisting problem is, as a speaker at the conference “The first billion years” (Garching, 2005) already put it in a nutshell: “The limit of background measurement is foreground.” A considerable amount of filtering and modeling is included in the analysis, rendering it gradually more prone to artifacts. (One would wish the entire anaylsis to be publicly available and transparent.)

This is already a huge problem for the tiny polarization signal seen at the time of the formation of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), assumed to be 380,000 years after the Big Bang, but it renders ridiculous the claims about the first seconds of the universe. How could such subtle information survive in a sizzling hot soup for almost half a million years?

In addition, the signal declared as evidence for gravitational waves, the “B-Mode polarization,” is utterly banal—polarization is (practically) a vector field and every vector field can be decomposed into “div” and “curl” parts. Cosmologists now claim that they cannot explain the origin of the curl part, but so what? Why gravitational waves? A pile of theoretical assumptions enters through the back door of this so-called observation. Hundreds of unknowns, artifacts, or dirt effects could cause such a “B-mode polarization.” To call this ‘direct observation’ (much more indirect as the already inconclusive evidence from the Taylor-Hulse pulsar) is audacious, to put it mildly.

To further the hype, they added the preposterous claim that those gravitational waves constitute evidence for the theory of inflation, an obviously nonsensical assertion that should leap to the eye of any sane researcher. How could an effect of the first 10-32 seconds be tracked over 50 orders of magnitude, to 380,000 years? Utterly absurd.

However, we live in a period in which the borders of science and fairy tale stories are blurring. Laura Mersini-Houghton, in all seriousness, has claimed that a “cold spot” in the CMB chart is evidence for the multiverse. MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark has recently published a book with ridiculous speculations, but he is nevertheless respected for his work on the CMB. I prefer to view it the other way around: whoever spreads such obvious baloney will hardly engage in serious science elsewhere.

The analysis of the CMB, since Penzias and Wilson, gradually became a more complicated issue and is now running for the most intransparent astrophysical business, much alike particle physics. It becomes increasingly harder to separate the hard facts from the tea leaves; thus, I would like to mention the work of Pierre-Marie Robitaille, who is even more skeptical about the CMB than I am. So much nonsense being published about the CMB makes me increasingly suspicious about its very foundations.

Fairy Tale Stories near the Big Bang

stringsYesterday’s claim that gravitational waves have been detected in the cosmic microwave background … I cannot help but posting a subchapter of Bankrupting Physics here (more  comments will follow soon):


If an electron hits its rare, exotic, mirror-image positron, both end their lives in a dramatic gamma-ray flash of pair annihilation. For that reason, particles such as the positron are called “antimatter.” Conversely, particle couples made of matter and antimatter can be generated out of a single photon just as well. Even the much heavier proton-antiproton pairs can be created if, of course, the photon’s energy is high enough to meet Einstein’s formula E = mc2. Antimatter puzzles physicists a lot. It hardly ever appearsin everyday life because it would promptly be annihilated by its counterpartin normal matter, but it is always present when new particles are created. The heavier the particles are the more effort is needed in big colliders to produce them, so it is sometimes speculated that these particles could have been formed cost-free shortly aft er the Big Bang, in the so-called primordial phase of tremendous heat. It’s a wonderful idea, but unfortunately it is also untestable. How could the information about high-energy particle creation and annihilation survive for 380,000 years in a sizzling hot soup?

Notwithstanding this, I have heard conference presentations in which people in all seriousness talk about their hope to detect such “signatures” of pair annihilation in the cosmic microwave background. This is already absurd because of the complexity of what happens to radiation aft er it is released at the end of the plasma era, but especially because we know literally nothing about what happened prior to that. How many physical processes could have superimposed themselves on the radiation and rendered any “signature” void by this point!

You can compare such a data analysis to that of satellite images of the ocean surface. We can ascertain the sea level to the centimeter, and infrared images can tell us the exact temperature. Thus, one can clearly identify the gulf stream of the North Atlantic, maybe even deduce the salinity and the algae percentage from a spectral analysis. And if you’re lucky, you read the wind speed from the ripples on the water. But fi nding primordial particles on the WMAP chart would be as if, by analyzing the movement of the ocean surface, you would identify deep sea fish and classify them zoologically. Th is doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t several research groups devoted to doing exactly this.

 Who does not lose one’s mind while reasoning about certain things, has nothing to lose – Gotthold Ephraim Lessing