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Everyday science

BICEP2 surprise visit, a bizarre rant, credible science fiction and more

21 Mar 2014 Hamish Johnston

 

By Hamish Johnston

The big story this week is that astronomers working on the BICEP2 telescope may have spotted the first direct evidence for cosmic inflation.  This is very good news for the physicist Andrei Linde, who along with Alan Guth and others did much of the early work on inflation. In the above YouTube video Linde, who is certainly in the running for a Nobel prize, receives a surprise visit from BICEP2 team member Chao-Lin Kuo. Kuo is the first to tell Linde and his wife, the physicist Renata Kallosh, the news that the theory that Linde developed more than 30 years earlier had finally been backed up by direct observational evidence. Not surprisingly, champagne glasses are clinking!

Here at physicsworld.com we have tried to tell both sides of the story: the thrill of seeing the first hints of cosmic inflation, tempered with calls for caution that more data are needed before inflation is victorious over other theories describing the early universe.

But what are others saying? Thomas Levenson who writes The Inverse Square Blog describes an excerpt from the BICEP2 preprint as “The most exciting sentence I’ve read this decade”. If you are looking for a more cautious and comprehensive discussion of the find, you can’t beat Matt Strassler’s magnum opus that appears on his blog Of Particular Significance. It’s aptly entitled “If It Holds Up, What Might BICEP2′s Discovery Mean?”.

 

One thing that was very frustrating about the live announcement of the BICEP2 result on Monday was that the Harvard-Smithsonian video feed was next to impossible to watch. Fortunately, the press conference has been uploaded to YouTube so you can finally watch it above and relive the excitement.

In what has to be the most bizarre and unfortunate incident arising from the BICEP2 announcement, University College London (UCL) has posted an open letter of protest to the UK tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail regarding its treatment of two UCL researchers. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who has Nigerian parents, and Sri Lankan born Hiranya Peiris had appeared on the BBC’s current affairs programme Newsnight to talk about BICEP2. Their presence seems to have upset Mail columnist Ephraim Hardcastle, who wrote “So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe…”. The apparent point of Hardcastle’s jibe was to highlight liberal bias at the BBC.

Elsewhere at UCL, the physicist Jon Butterworth has been busy with calculations related to a question that high up the agenda of many of us: “Can a coin dropped from a skyscraper kill you?”. Any guesses to what his answer is?

Finally, do you like your science fiction to be based on accurate science? If so, Andrew Fraknoi of Foothill College has compiled a topical index of “Science Fiction Stories with Good Astronomy & Physics”. Frankoi’s list contains 270 stories that are indexed under topics ranging from “antimatter” to “Venus”. The latter includes a recommendation of a 1978 story by  John Varley called “In the bowl” that is about the discovery of crystalline life on Venus.

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