How Could Scientists Mistake Dust For A Spectacular Discovery?

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An infographic at Quanta Magazine explains how scientists could've mistaken cosmic dust for gravitational waves as part of their special on the latest saga of the hazards of doing science in public. While disappointing, this just part of the halting, uncertain progress at uncovering the mysteries of the universe.


If you're having a hard time wrapping your head around how scientists could've been confused by dust when they thought they detected gravitational waves earlier this year, Olena Shmahalo has a slick infographic in Quanta Magazine. The infographic is part of a longer article on the mechanics of how scientists could've mistaken dust for signals from the Big Bang.

While I know this is going to lead to lots of grumbling about how scientists are always wrong, I see this as part of the joy and pain of practicing science in public. Yes, sometimes media blows things out of proportion. Yes, sometimes a potential big deal turns out to be nothing more than human error. But that's a natural consequence of getting to share in the very human excitement of being included in the big moments, when years of effort pay off in a moment of realization.


Losing the Bicep 2 results isn't a big hit for the Big Bang theory of cosmic inflation. While it would've been nice to have clearly identified gravitational waves, the stepping back of the Bicep results are not proof that the theory is wrong. As physicist Sean Carroll accurately snarks:


Top image extracted from infographic by Olena Shmahalo/Quanta Magazine. Tip via the always-informative Physics Today Facebook feed.