Further to the scrutiny that the current gravitational waves finding (BICEP2) is facing, here are some notes from theoretical physicist Matt Strassler:
From the very beginning of the BICEP2 story, I’ve been reminding you (here and here) that it is very common for claims of great scientific discoveries to disappear after further scrutiny, and that a declaration of victory by the scientific community comes much more slowly and deliberately than it often does in the press. Every scientist knows that while science, as a collective process viewed over time, very rarely makes mistakes, individual experiments and experimenters are often wrong. (To its credit, the New York Times article contained some cautionary statements in its prose, and also quoted scientists making cautionary statements. Other media outlets forgot.)
Forgot? The heck they forgot! Some rushed to proclaim evidence for a multiverse. Anyway, Strassler says,
Doing forefront science is extremely difficult, because it requires near-perfection. A single unfortunate mistake in a very complex experiment can create an effect that appears similar to what the experimenters were looking for, but is a fake. Scientists are all well-aware of this; we’ve all seen examples, some of which took years to diagnose. And so, as with any claim of a big discovery, you should view the BICEP2 result as provisional, until checked thoroughly by outside experts, and until confirmed by other experiments.
He suggests four sources of such errors (all technical).
His thoughts about physics are interesting too. As sciences go, physics is less prone to invasions by sheer crackpots than some other sciences. Physics had to branch off cosmology in order to host the Where Are They? debates about space aliens. From a strict physics perspective, it makes no difference whether aliens exist, any more than whether angels exist. But people don’t usually think that way, so while physicists take a huge amount of time and money to verify the Higgs boson, popular science media are still coming up with reasons why They aren’t returning our calls.
See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (cosmology).
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