While I was away on vacation, the big news in physics was the BICEP2 result on B-modes in the CMB. Maybe it’s just as well I wasn’t available to blog about this, since inflation and cosmology aren’t at all my field of expertise. Now that some of the dust has settled from the media blitz though, I do think it’s worth while to write something here, since there are some aspects of the story where the media coverage could use some extra perspective.
First of all, there’s the obligatory caveat about this result not being definitive, which most coverage by scientists has included. To my non-expert eye, looking at the main graph reproduced everywhere, if you subtract the gravitational lensing background you get something which is much larger at higher values of l than it is supposed to be if it were coming from primordial gravitational waves. But, I’m the wrong person to be evaluating this, you should read what the experts have to say, with some examination of the issue from Peter Coles here and Sesh Nadathur here and here. The great thing about this is that all you should need is a little bit of patience to see it resolved, with data coming in from Planck later this year and sooner or later from BICEP3 and other experiments as well. If this is a red-herring, we should know that within a relatively short time-frame.
Assuming that there really is a primodial gravitational wave signal, this is something that has long been predicted by inflationary models, so is a significant extra piece of evidence for some sort of inflationary scenario. I’m not the right person to try and explain the details of this, or even to point you to the best review articles, but some things you might want to look at are John Preskill’s derivation of the prediction here, and many people are pointing to Daniel Baumann’s lectures here. On the plane back from Italy I was looking for other reasons at an excellent introductory QFT textbook by Alvarez-Gaume and Vazquez-Mozo, which turns out to have a section (6.5) devoted to this calculation.
For the implications of this kind of confirmation of inflation, one obvious question is what it means for string theory. The standard argument from string theorists is that its testability problems arise because we can only do relatively low energy experiments, that at high enough energies, such as those of the very early universe, it would be testable (not true, since string theory is capable of giving you pretty much anything you want at any energy). The press coverage of what BICEP2 means for string theory is pretty comical [to be clear, the comedy is provided not by journalists, but by physicists and a "theory" that can explain anything], with Nature telling us:
The BICEP2 results will also send some string theorists back to the drawing board, says Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate at MIT. String theory posits that elementary particles are made of tiny vibrating loops of energy. Efforts to combine string theory with cosmology have led to inflationary models that generate gravitational waves with energies much lower than the level detected by BICEP2, he says.
Theoretical physicist Eva Silverstein of Stanford says she disagrees that string theory-based models of inflation are in any sort of trouble. “There is no sense in which we are forced to start over,” she says. She adds that in fact a separate class of theories that involve both axions and strings now look promising.
Linde agrees. “There is no need to discard string theory, it is just a normal process of learning which versions of the theory are better,” he says.
New Scientist has a string theorist making the usual claim that finally, string theory is testable, showing up those bloggers who say it isn’t. The idea is that the BICEP2 results don’t confirm inflation, but something completely different:
Picture the cosmos as a rolled-up piece of paper held in place with rubber bands, says Robert Brandenberger at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who was part of a team that came up with the model in 1989.
The paper is a nine-dimensional universe, and the rubber bands are vibrating strings. If two strings meet, their edges can form a single, twisted loop. That would release three dimensions of space and one of time, which can then swell to the scales we see in the universe today. This process can account for the tiny density variations seen in the CMB and strong gravitational waves – no inflation required.
The BICEP2 results slightly favour this model. If Planck sees the same signal, it could be the first observational evidence for string theory. “For string theorists this is very important,” says Brandenberger. “Opponents can no longer say string theory does not connect with data.”
While Brandenberger argues that string theory is testable because it predicts inflation is wrong, Science has Scott Dodelson arguing that string theory is testable because it predicts various versions of inflation:
Moreover, Dodelson says, theories of quantum gravity, such as string theory, predict modifications to the shape of the inflaton energy landscape. So if that landscape can be measured precisely, he suggests, physicists might finally put string theory—long mocked as an untestable “theory of anything”—to a concrete test.
Then of course there’s Michio Kaku who at NBC News explains:
“Inflation simply says there was a bang, and it expanded rapidly, but it doesn’t say what the fuse was,” Kaku said. “Nobody can say they know what the fuse is.”
Kaku, a string theorist, says that string theory could provide the answer … or answers. The cosmic parameters for string theory suggest that the number of possible universes could amount to around 10 to the 500th power. That’s a 1 with 500 zeroes after it. Such a scenario offers so many possibilities for parallel universes that in some of them, “Elvis Presley is still alive,” Kaku joked.
Besides watching the string cosmology clown-show, I’ve not followed at all closely the huge amount of work done by theorists in recent decades on various ways to get inflationary scenarios, so don’t have anything well-informed to say about how the BICEP2 results will affect this area. One thing to watch will be a conference next week at Perimeter (thanks to a commenter here for pointing this out).
For some background on why I haven’t paid much attention to this, I should explain some history. Back in 1980 when Alan Guth’s work on inflation first came out, I was a graduate student and did pay close attention to what was going on. The arguments from Guth and others for inflation as an explanation for several otherwise hard to understand aspects of cosmology (the horizon problem, flatness problem) were (and are) compelling. Even better, the idea motivating Guth at the time was that the fields responsible for inflation would be those that broke the GUT symmetries, so grand unified particle physics models would explain aspects of cosmology, and cosmological observations might tell us more about GUTs. All in all, this was a very attractive idea.
Over the years though, no evidence for GUTs emerged and it became clear that GUTs didn’t actually provide very much in the way of explanatory power about the Standard Model. Lots of work was done on inflationary models, but these models just typically invoked a single conjectural scalar field (the “inflaton”), with its relationship to anything known in particle physics a mystery. Earlier CMB data gave some hints of further evidence for inflation, and now the BICEP2 data provides yet more significant evidence, so there’s lots of reasons to take seriously the idea of inflationary scenarios. The models getting some confirmation though seem to be very simple ones, with a single inflaton field and a very simple potential. This is great news for the general idea of inflation, but still leaves the whole subject with pretty much no convincing explanation of anything about particle physics, and with a minimal connection to quantum gravity (although one intriguing new BICEP2 paper I did notice was this one).
The sad thing about this whole subject though is how some people involved in it have reacted to its problems making connection with particle physics, by throwing in their lot with the multiverse as an explanation for the failure of string theory. The multiverse functions here as an all-purpose excuse for not being able to explain anything about particle physics, with the argument being made that particle physics is fundamentally something just random and inexplicable, different at different points of the multiverse.
The standard move of the people doing this is to point to the fact that in the simple models getting some confirmation, “eternal inflation” can give you lots of copies of our universe, all with the same physics. This is advertised as “evidence for the multiverse”, with no mention of the fact that, to the extent this is true, it’s evidence for what Tegmark calls a “Type I multiverse” (all the same physics), not a “Type II multiverse” (different physics in different universes, making our physics unpredictable). Several physicists in recent years have been engaged in a vigorous publicity campaign based on confusing this issue, and the BICEP2 results found them hard at work. There’s Max Tegmark here and here, Sean Carroll at the New York Times, and Andrei Linde and Alan Guth everywhere (see for example here, here and here).
Luckily not all of the press coverage is dominated by this, with the better science journalists doing a good job of ignoring it and focusing on the real story (a good example is Dennis Overbye here and here).
For some other press coverage of the “BICEP2 implies Multiverse” story, there’s Fox News, which has Dr. William Lane Craig explaining how this is proof the scriptures are true. Claims are also being made by The Bosnian Royal Family for having priority over Andrei Linde in this proof of the Multiverse.
Update: On Twitter, Peter Coles comments that “Perhaps there is a part of the multiverse in which the #BICEP2 results provide evidence for a multiverse, but I don’t think we live there.”