Another One Bites the Dust

News this past March out of Harvard University’s Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) Group detailing discovery of the possible evidence for inflation in the early universe is taking a universal beating as of late for failing to properly account for dust, perhaps in the group’s haste to leave its competition in it.

Their findings using the South Pole-based BICEP2 telescope hinge on the detection of gravitational waves, which cosmologists have long predicted would produce a specific type of polarization. They were correct in more ways than one.

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

BICEP2 telescope at South Pole. (Credit: Harvard CMB Group)

I remember seeing the media advisory on the American Astronomical Society (AAS) listserv announcing the Monday morning press conference at Harvard’s Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics — an unusual occurrence in my admittedly relatively young experience in science media circles, outside of announcing a Nobel Prize. Given that Harvard is a fellow partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope, I emailed Texas A&M astronomer Nick Suntzeff in hopes that he would know what could justify such a media frenzy.

He did. And per his usual, he had a strong, succinct opinion on both the breakthrough and the group’s manner of conveying it to the world: “All this drama — science did not used to be like this.”

Months before the latest round of back-pedaling in the media, Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger had been among those sounding the alarm regarding the damage done to science’s credibility and public image. I emailed Nick then for his counsel, just as I did when I saw Dennis Overbye’s New York Times feature and then another in Nature on back-to-back days earlier this month. Nick didn’t mince words. Nor should he, in my opinion. Then again, we’re both fans of implied duty and inherent responsibility.

More importantly, he offered some great comparative insight on how he and the High-Z Supernova Search Team handled their own early stage Nobel Prize-winning research that ended up proving the universe’s expansion is actually accelerating, thanks to a mysterious substance they co-discovered: dark energy.

“When we discovered dark energy, all we did was to find that the distant supernovae were too faint in comparison to what was expected,” Nick wrote. “We immediately worried that there was some sort of dust in the universe we did not know about that could cause this. We gave a simple argument as to why we felt this dust could not be causing the effect. Dust makes stuff look red — look at something through a forest fire, and it appears red. Same in the universe. We did not see this reddening.

“Also, if there was dust in the universe that we did not know about, more distant stuff should appear fainter because the light has to travel through more dust. This latter effect was difficult to measure, but we did show it was unlikely. All this was in our papers. What we did not do was to say that we have considered dust as causing the faintness of distant supernovae and then not tell the reader why we concluded this. That is what the BICEP2 paper did, and it confused us all as to why they did this.”

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background -- the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

Planck satellite map of the cosmic microwave background — the radiation ripples left over from the Big Bang. (Credit: NASA/European Space Agency)

If astrophysicists the likes of Nick Suntzeff are confused, one can imagine where this leaves the public, both in terms of understanding this “discovery” and in their general impression of science.

First, do no harm.

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The BICEP2 kerfuffle (have always wanted to use that word!) reminds me of a previous occasion when Nick flexed his writing muscles in the name of responsible science. The result: a memorable 2011 guest post for the Last Word On Nothing blog in which he simultaneously describes and decries how science is done these days.

If I Had a Million Dollars

As we put the wraps on the first week of a new semester here in Aggieland, there’s a lot of good news beyond the resolution of 2012 Heisman Trophy-winning sensation Johnny Manziel’s future at quarterback.

By all indications, both incoming freshmen and their families have reason to feel secure about their educational investment, thanks to far bigger breaking news than who’s under center this season. In case you haven’t heard, Texas A&M ranks as the top university in Texas (second overall to Rice University, which is private) and fourth in the nation among public institutions for return on investment for a degree, according to AffordableCollegesOnline, a national website that tracks college pricing and, as the name suggests, overall affordability. Matter of fact, after all their algorithms are said and done, that choice to attend Texas A&M could translate to being $1 million richer. Holy future bargaining, Bat Man!


Judging from local real estate sales to traffic (vehicle and foot), the secret of Aggieland’s allure appears to be out – or at least well on its way. Another study from pegs College Station as the second-fastest-growing college town in the country behind Raleigh, North Carolina, one of three anchors in the coveted Research Triangle. In fact, the home of Texas A&M University is expected to top 100,000 during the next couple of months, and that’s not even taking into account the weekend swell for home football games.

Yep, by all accounts, it’s a good time to be a Texas Aggie. Of course, I thought so 25 years ago when I fell in love with the place my older brother called his collegiate home while I was here for a summer honors program. I applied later that fall, was accepted, enrolled for my freshman year in 1989, and never looked back. Now that I’m still here and raising my own family, I have to admit, it’s one decision in life that I’ve never regretted, let alone even second-guessed. The older I get, the more I realize that’s the kind of peace of mind money can’t buy.

Thanks and gig ‘em, Aggies!