Waving Goodbye to Gravitational Waves?

Jonathan Strickland

A little dust just got in our eyes. | Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech A little dust just got in our eyes.
A little dust just got in our eyes. | Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech A little dust just got in our eyes.

On March 26, 2014, we published a Fw:Thinking video about scientists with the BICEP2 project finding evidence of gravitational waves, lending support to a particular variation of the Big Bang theory. Since that amazing find, scientists and researchers have brought up concerns that the conclusions were based on faulty evidence. The concern was that the presence of space dust had lead to some unsupported conclusions.

And now, data from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite appears to confirm the concerns. The space dust detected by BICEP2 could have been misinterpreted as evidence of gravitational waves.

While I'm sure the findings are frustrating and perhaps disappointing to BICEP2 researchers, this is how science is supposed to work. The scientific process involves observing and testing the world around us to learn what's really going on. In order to learn real answers, we have to put our conclusions to the test.

Sometimes, the ideas hold true. Peers will look for faults in the methodology used or the conclusions made based on experiments and observations. Other scientists will replicate the experiments or make observations of their own and come to the same conclusions. When that happens, we see a consensus that the interpretation of the data supports the conclusions and we move on.

But there are times -- and this happens often -- in which peers will find mistakes in a scientist's work or come up with alternative conclusions. That's when it's time to take a close look at the data and methodology with as objective an approach as possible. It might mean going back to the drawing board or abandoning an idea that seemed to be an open and shut case.

It's hard, even for scientists, to give up on an idea. But when faced with contradictory evidence, a good scientist will admit that earlier conclusions are at the very least problematic. And that's how we see science as a whole progress -- we test, we question, we test again and only after we feel we've met those tests do we accept a conclusion as being likely true. And at the end of the day, we keep in mind that even this conclusion could one day turn out to be incomplete or incorrect.

As for the gravitational waves, the researchers at BICEP2 haven't quite given up yet, according to the New York Times. The researchers are partnering with the Planck satellite team to compare data. The teams will look for any evidence of gravitational waves within the BICEP2 data once they account for the dust. The Planck team has said that they may well find something, though that evidence will point to weaker gravitational waves than what the team at BICEP2 thought they found. Weaker waves, if they can be found once the comparison is complete, will require some rethinking of the various Big Bang models for the early universe.

I can't wait to find out what the researchers discover as they compare data. Will the gravitational waves discovery disappear into thin space, or will we have strong evidence to support the Big Bang model?