It's Official: That Much-Hyped Big Bang Discovery Was Literally All Dust

There will be no Nobel prizes after all. Last March, scientists announced they had discovered our first direct evidence of the Big Bang, but that evidence has been slowly crumbling away. The results of a joint analysis released today make it official: It was all just cosmic dust.

What the original team of physicists using the BICEP2 telescope thought they saw was evidence of primordial gravitational waves leftover from the Big Bang. Alas, the distortions in light erroneously attributed to the gravitational waves were actually due to cosmic dust.

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We wrote about the controversy over the gravitational waves discovery in greater detail last fall, when the doubts first began bubbling up. [ESA]

Top image: BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica. Credit: Steffen Richter, Harvard University

Physicists Are Backing Away From the Biggest Discovery of This Century

Back in March, a group of physicists announced the first direct evidence of the Big Bang in a splashy press conference followed by Nobel prize forecasts and champagne. But scientists have since questioned the discovery, and a new paper suggests the signal detected was not evidence of the Big Bang but instead largely, if not entirely, from interstellar dust. Oops.

In case you haven't been following the whole cosmological saga, here's a brief recap. Earlier this year, scientists using data from the BICEP2 telescope in Antarctica said they found a pattern called "B-mode polarization" in the cosmic microwave background, which is radiation left over from the formation of the universe. These swirls matched the patterns thought to be made by primordial gravitational waves, which had been predicted but never seen before.

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BICEP2 seemed to offer proof of the existence of primordial gravitational waves, and by extension, the Big Bang. Woohoo! Applause! Nobel!

But—you've surely sensed there is a "but" coming—there is much more prosaic explanation for those patterns too: dust. The BICEP2 scientists tried to account for this by using known several models of dust in space, including a preliminary map from a Powerpoint presentation given by a researcher working with the European Space Agency's Planck space telescope.

Now, Planck scientists have published their full map of interstellar dust, and there is more contamination than BICEP2 had accounted for. How much of BICEP2's signal actually comes from dust is still a matter of analysis—the teams are working together and expected to publish something in November.

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There's still some hope that BICEP2 detected more than dust, but those celebrations back in March were just as likely premature. Science by press conference is flashy (and if we're going to be totally honest, it gets a lot of clicks), but it obscures how science really works—slowly, in fits, with lots of back and forth. [Quanta]

Top image: BICEP2 Telescope. Amble/Creative Commons