Here I am at an extremely stimulating meeting on gravity and quantum spacetime in Santa Barbara, but I skipped yesterday’s afternoon session to talk on the PBS News Hour about the new inflation results:
There’s a great parallel (if the BICEP2 result holds up!) between Monday’s evidence for inflation and the Higgs discovery back in 2012. When talking about the Higgs, I like to point out the extraordinary nature of the accomplishment of those physicists (Anderson, Englert, Brout, Higgs, Guralnik, Hagen, Kibble) who came up with the idea back in the early 1960’s. They were thinking about a fairly general question: how can you make forces of nature (like the nuclear forces) that don’t obey an inverse square law, but instead only stretch over a short distance? They weren’t lucky enough to have specific, detailed experimental guidance; just some basic principles and an ambitious goal. And they (independently!) proposed a radical idea: empty space is suffused with an invisible energy field that affects the behavior of other fields in space in a profound way. A crazy-sounding idea, and one that was largely ignored for quite a while. Gradually physicists realized that it was actually quite promising, and we spent billions of dollars and many thousands of scientist-years of effort to test the idea. Finally, almost half a century later, a tiny bump on a couple of plots showed they were right.
The inflation story is similar. Alan Guth was thinking about some very general features of the universe: the absence of monopoles, the overall smoothness and flatness. And he proposed an audacious idea: in its very earliest moments, the universe was driven by the potential energy of some quantum field to expand at an accelerated rate, smoothing things out and diluting unwanted relics like monopoles. Unlike the Higgs idea, inflation caught on quite quickly, and people soon realized that it helped explain the origin of density perturbations and (potentially) gravitational-wave fluctuations. Inflation became the dominant idea in early-universe cosmology, but it was always a wild extrapolation away from known physics. If BICEP2 is right, the energy scale of inflation is 0.01 times the Planck scale. The Large Hadron Collider, our highest-energy accelerator here on Earth, reaches energies of 0.00000000000001 times the Planck scale. We really have (had) no right to think that our cute little speculations about what the universe was doing at such scales were anywhere near the right track.
But apparently they were. Over thirty years later, thanks to the dedication of very talented experimenters and millions of dollars of (public) funding, another bump on a plot seems to be confirming that original audacious idea.
It’s the power of reason and science. We tell stories about how the universe works, but we don’t simply tell any old stories that come to mind; we are dramatically constrained by experimental data and by consistency with the basic principles we think we do understand. Those constraints are enormously powerful — enough that we can sit at our desks, thinking hard, extending our ideas way beyond anything we’ve directly experienced, and come up with good ideas about how things really work. Most such ideas don’t turn out to be right — that’s science for you — but some of them do.
Science is a dialogue between the free play of ideas — theorizing — and the harsh constraints of empiricism — experimental data. Theories are a lever, data are a fulcrum, and between them we can move the world.