Gravitational wave/inflation discovery literally bites the dust

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The uncertainty of science: The big discovery earlier this year of gravitational waves confirming the cosmological theory of inflation has now been found to be completely bogus. Instead of being caused by gravitational waves, the detection was caused by dust in the Milky Way.

Even while the mainstream press was going nuts touting the original announcement, I never even posted anything about it. To me, there were too many assumptions underlying the discovery, as well as too many data points with far too large margins of error, to trust the result. It was interesting, but hardly a certain discovery. Now we have found that the only thing certain about it was that it wasn’t the discovery the scientists thought.

Nor is this unusual for the field of cosmology. Because much of this sub-field of astronomy is dependent on large uncertainties and assumptions, its “facts” are often disproven or untrustworthy. And while the Big Bang theory itself unquestionably fits the known facts better than any other theory at this time, there remain too many uncertainties to believe in it without strong skepticism.



  • D.K. Williams

    I saw this story and didn’t buy it either.

  • mpthompson

    How certain is science about the big bang theory and inflation being correct? I realize that the so far the theory is the best fit for the CMBR measurements and other supporting evidence, but at one time planetary epicycles fit the leading theory of planetary motions as well. The main thing that bothers me about the big bang is that it places humans in a special location within the universe — mainly at near the beginning of time given that the universe will continue on for trillions and trillions of years making the first 14 billion years seem like an eyeblink. I wonder if “consensus” around the big bang is preventing investigation into radically different theories that might actually fit the observed data better.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the universe actually is infinite in age, but just always appears to be 14 billion years in age when an incorrect model is applied against the observed data. For instance, the edge of observed space for us is where cosmic expansion causes objects to move away from us at speeds greater than the speed of light — effectively placing us looking at all directions at an inside-out black hole. That being the case, the edge of the universe should have other properties we normally associate with the edge of a black hole including evaporation where all the matter that should have left over the cosmic horizon slowly leaks back into into our universe as radiation — thus endlessly recycling everything. Kind of a cosmic Hydrologic Cycle.

    Just some idle speculation on a lazy Sunday morning.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Bob, over the years I’ve learned to trust your skepticism, which has proven right more often than not. And your persistence in using the phrase “the uncertainty of science” is well grounded. Carl Sagan used to say the great thing about science is not what it discovers but that it’s a self-correcting process; that only by lengthy and painful and constant skeptical reappraisal can we ever even approach something considered truth. Time and again the scientific community has abandoned this rule, and always to their everlasting shame. Years ago, I profiled a microbiologist who was bullied into dropping out of graduate school at one point. His transgression? He wanted to pursue research into human retroviruses. His faculty adviser admonished him never to speak about such a ridiculous premise, because doing so would draw disdain and ridicule of the scientific establishment, who remained certain that retroviruses could not infect humans. Today, mention a particular retrovirus and nearly everyone has heard of it and knows what it can do to human beings: HIV. Hang onto your skepticism, Bob. It helps us all.

  • “How certain is science about the big bang theory and inflation being correct?”

    As you say, the theory presently fits the facts quite well. The facts, however, are far from certain. There are many many assumptions required to establish these facts. Moreover, the facts themselves are very tenuous, based on on relatively little data without much depth.

    Thus, a good scientist should remain very skeptical and open-minded about the Big Bang theory. Sadly, my experience in talking to astronomers is that if you dare raise any doubts about it you are considered a medieval witch doctor who doesn’t understand science.

  • Max

    The skepticism on this site is refreshing. question all ideas and theories, facts will stand on their own. (The consensus of scientists who said a major winter storm was coming to New York did not make it true)
    The creation of the universe occurred in one spot, everywhere else did not exist yet. Therefore everywhere you look is the center of the universe. Unless we are wrong.
    If everything is expanding outward from a central point, then no galaxy would collide with another as the distance between galaxies would continue expanding forever.
    Not only are collisions happening, but the movements of galaxies is nearly chaotic. Like the rip in space time that created this universe was attached to the wall or the edge of the universe and flittered about like a balloon that got away.
    I suspect that new theories with unusual mechanics and energies will be introduced in our lifetime to explain what we don’t know, and to bring up more questions that we haven’t asked yet. (For example, the big bang could have set off a cascade event that allowed multiple big bangs to occur over a very large distance ? The rebounding compression wave would have condensed the energy into matter so it would not all radiate out to the edge of the universe and slow down the expansion rate)
    Just random thoughts…

  • Edward

    “Sadly, my experience in talking to astronomers is that if you dare raise any doubts about it you are considered a medieval witch doctor who doesn’t understand science.”

    Skepticism also applies to new hypotheses, and scientists tend to be biased in favor of what they have already been convinced is right and true, despite their desire to keep open minds. Because the Big Bang *is* consistent with current observation, it is all too tempting to consider it to be “settled science.” Thus, should a new observation come along to disprove the Big Bang, it could take time for current scientists to accept it, just as Darwin’s hypotheses took time (and many additional observations) to accept and Einstein’s papers took time (and several experiments) to accept.

    It can be traumatic to realize that the great Sir Isaac Newton was less than correct or that reality is different from what you see and experience around you.

    This bias (I forgot the name for it) is a part of human nature, and it is why it is so hard to convince people that, for example, there really *is* a “pause” in global warming — which implies that global warming is the norm — so let me rephrase it: that there really has been no warming trend for the past decade or so. Many people believe in global warming because (non)scientist (and carbon credit entrepreneur) Al Gore’s movie convinced them before counter evidence was presented, and because it is hard to convince people — even open-minded scientists — that what they know to be right and true is neither. (Or to convince scientists whose funding comes from governments that want global warming proved for political, not scientific, reasons.)

    This bias is also why evidence that supports a current theory is so easily accepted and is so shocking when it turns out to have been generated by dust motes (read: “contamination”) in the experiment.

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