When a team of cosmologists announced at a press conference in March that they had detected gravitational waves generated in the first instants after the Big Bang, the origins of the Universe were once again major news. The reported discovery created a worldwide sensation in the scientific community, the media and the public at large (see Nature 507, 281–283; 2014).
According to the team at the BICEP2 South Pole telescope, the detection is at the 5–7 sigma level, so there is less than one chance in two million of it being a random occurrence. The results were hailed as proof of the Big Bang inflationary theory and its progeny, the multiverse. Nobel prizes were predicted and scores of theoretical models spawned. The announcement also influenced decisions about academic appointments and the rejections of papers and grants. It even had a role in governmental planning of large-scale projects.
The BICEP2 team identified a twisty (B-mode) pattern in its maps of polarization of the cosmic microwave background, concluding that this was a detection of primordial gravitational waves. Now, serious flaws in the analysis have been revealed that transform the sure detection into no detection. The search for gravitational waves must begin anew. The problem is that other effects, including light scattering from dust and the synchrotron radiation generated by electrons moving around galactic magnetic fields within our own Galaxy, can also produce these twists.
The BICEP2 instrument detects radiation at only one frequency, so cannot distinguish the cosmic contribution from other sources. To do so, the BICEP2 team used measurements of galactic dust collected by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and Planck satellites, each of which operates over a range of other frequencies. When the BICEP2 team did its analysis, the Planck dust map had not yet been published, so the team extracted data from a preliminary map that had been presented several months earlier. Now a careful reanalysis by scientists at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, also in Princeton, has concluded that the BICEP2 B-mode pattern could be the result mostly or entirely of foreground effects without any contribution from gravitational waves. Other dust models considered by the BICEP2 team do not change this negative conclusion, the Princetonteam showed (R. Flauger, J. C. Hill and D. N. Spergel, preprint at http://arxiv.org/abs/1405.7351; 2014).
The sudden reversal should make the scientific community contemplate the implications for the future of cosmology experimentation and theory. The search for gravitational waves is not stymied. At least eight experiments, including BICEP3, the Keck Array and Planck, are already aiming at the same goal.