If you’re reading this you probably know about the BICEP2 experiment, a radio telescope at the South Pole that measured a particular polarization signal known as “B-modes” in the cosmic microwaves background radiation. Cosmologists were very excited at the prospect that the B-modes were the imprint of gravitational waves originating from a period of inflation in the primordial universe; now, with more data from the Planck satellite, it seems plausible that the signal is mostly due to dust in our own galaxy. The measurements that the team reported were completely on-target, but our interpretation of them has changed — we’re still looking for direct evidence for or against inflation.
Here I’m very happy to publish an interview that was carried out with Jamie Bock, a professor of physics at Caltech and a senior research scientist at JPL, who is one of the leaders of the BICEP2 collaboration. It’s a unique look inside the workings of an incredibly challenging scientific effort.
New Results from BICEP2: An Interview with Jamie Bock
What does the new data from Planck tell you? What do you know now?
A scientific race has been under way for more than a decade among a dozen or so experiments trying to measure B-mode polarization, a telltale signature of gravitational waves produced from the time of inflation. Last March, BICEP2 reported a B-mode polarization signal, a twisty polarization pattern measured in a small patch of sky. The amplitude of the signal we measured was surprisingly large, exceeding what we expected for galactic emission. This implied we were seeing a large gravitational wave signal from inflation.
We ruled out galactic synchrotron emission, which comes from electrons spiraling in the magnetic field of the galaxy, using low-frequency data from the WMAP [Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe] satellite. But there were no data available on polarized galactic dust emission, and we had to use models. These models weren’t starting from zero; they were built on well-known maps of unpolarized dust emission, and, by and large, they predicted that polarized dust emission was a minor constituent of the total signal.
Obviously, the answer here is of great importance for cosmology, and we have always wanted a direct test of galactic emission using data in the same piece of sky so that we can test how much of the BICEP2 signal is cosmological, representing gravitational waves from inflation, and how much is from galactic dust. We did exactly that with galactic synchrotron emission from WMAP because the data were public. But with galactic dust emission, we were stuck, so we initiated a collaboration with the Planck satellite team to estimate and subtract polarized dust emission. Planck has the world’s best data on polarized emission from galactic dust, measured over the entire sky in multiple spectral bands. However, the polarized dust maps were only recently released.
On the other side, BICEP2 gives us the highest-sensitivity data available at 150 GHz to measure the CMB. Interestingly, the two measurements are stronger in combination. We get a big boost in sensitivity by putting them together. Also, the detectors for both projects were designed, built, and tested at Caltech and JPL, so I had a personal interest in seeing that these projects worked together. I’m glad to say the teams worked efficiently and harmoniously together.
What we found is that when we subtract the galaxy, we just see noise; no signal from the CMB is detectable. Formally we can say at least 40 percent of the total BICEP2 signal is dust and less than 60 percent is from inflation.
How do these new data shape your next steps in exploring the earliest moments of the universe?
It is the best we can do right now, but unfortunately the result with Planck is not a very strong test of a possible gravitational wave signal. This is because the process of subtracting galactic emission effectively adds more noise into the analysis, and that noise limits our conclusions. While the inflationary signal is less than 60 percent of the total, that is not terribly informative, leaving many open questions. For example, it is quite possible that the noise prevents us from seeing part of the signal that is cosmological. It is also possible that all of the BICEP2 signal comes from the galaxy. Unfortunately, we cannot say more because the data are simply not precise enough. Our ability to measure polarized galactic dust emission in particular is frustratingly limited.
However, there is good news to report. In this analysis, we added new data obtained in 2012–13 from the Keck Array, an instrument with five telescopes and the successor to BICEP2 (see Fig. 1). These data are at the same frequency band as BICEP2—150 GHz—so while they don’t help subtract the galaxy, they do increase the total sensitivity. The Keck Array clearly detects the same signal detected by BICEP2. In fact, every test we can do shows the two are quite consistent, which demonstrates that we are doing these difficult measurements correctly (see Fig. 2). The BICEP2/Keck maps are also the best ever made, with enough sensitivity to detect signals that are a tiny fraction of the total.
In addition, Planck’s measurements over the whole sky show the polarized dust is fairly well behaved. For example, the polarized dust has nearly the same spectrum across the sky, so there is every reason to expect we can measure and remove dust cleanly.
To better subtract the galaxy, we need better data. We aren’t going to get more data from Planck because the mission has finished. The best way is to measure the dust ourselves by adding new spectral bands to our own instruments. We are well along in this process already. We added a second band to the Keck Array last year at 95 GHz and a third band this year at 220 GHz. We just installed the new BICEP3 instrument at 95 GHz at the South Pole (see Fig. 3). BICEP3 is single telescope that will soon be as powerful as all five Keck Array telescopes put together. At 95 GHz, Keck and BICEP3 should surpass BICEP2’s 150 GHz sensitivity by the end of this year, and the two will be a very powerful combination indeed. If we switch the Keck Array entirely over to 220 GHz starting next year, we can get a third band to a similar depth.
Finally, this January the SPIDER balloon experiment, which is also searching the CMB for evidence of inflation, completed its first flight, outfitted with comparable sensitivity at 95 and 150 GHz. Because SPIDER floats above the atmosphere (see Fig. 4), we can also measure the sky on larger spatial scales. This all adds up to make the coming years very exciting.
Why did you make the decision last March to release results? In retrospect, do you regret it?
We knew at the time that any news of a B-mode signal would cause a great stir. We started working on the BICEP2 data in 2010, and our standard for putting out the paper was that we were certain the measurements themselves were correct. It is important to point out that, throughout this episode, our measurements basically have not changed. As I said earlier, the initial BICEP2 measurement agrees with new data from the Keck Array, and both show the same signal. For all we know, the B-mode polarization signal measured by BICEP2 may contain a significant cosmological component—that’s what we need to find out.
The question really is, should we have waited until better data were available on galactic dust? Personally, I think we did the right thing. The field needed to be able to react to our data and test the results independently, as we did in our collaboration with Planck. This process hasn’t ended; it will continue with new data. Also, the searches for inflationary gravitational waves are influenced by these findings, and it is clear that all of the experiments in the field need to focus more resources on measuring the galaxy.
How confident are you that you will ultimately find conclusive evidence for primordial gravitational waves and the signature of cosmic inflation?
I don’t have an opinion about whether or not we will find a gravitational wave signal—that is why we are doing the measurement! But any result is so significant for cosmology that it has to be thoroughly tested by multiple groups. I am confident that the measurements we have made to date are robust, and the new data we need to subtract the galaxy more accurately are starting to pour forth. The immediate path forward is clear: we know how to make these measurements at 150 GHz, and we are already applying the same process to to the new frequencies. Doing the measurements ourselves also means they are uniform so we understand all of the errors, which, in the end, are just as important.
What will it mean for our understanding of the universe if you don’t find the signal?
The goal of this program is to learn how inflation happened. Inflation requires matter-energy with an unusual repulsive property in order to rapidly expand the universe. The physics are almost certainly new and exotic, at energies too high to be accessed with terrestrial particle accelerators. CMB measurements are one of the few ways to get at the inflationary physics, and we need to squeeze them for all they are worth. A gravitational wave signal is very interesting because it tells us about the physical process behind inflation. A detection of the polarization signal at a high level means that the certain models of inflation, perhaps along the lines of the models first developed, are a good explanation.
But here again is the real point: we also learn more about inflation if we can rule out polarization from gravitational waves. No detection at 5 percent or less of the total BICEP2 signal means that inflation is likely more complicated, perhaps involving multiple fields, although there are certainly other possibilities. Either way is a win, and we’ll find out more about what caused the birth of the universe 13.8 billion years ago.
Our team dedicated itself to the pursuit of inflationary polarization 15 years ago fully expecting a long and difficult journey. It is exciting, after all this work, to be at this stage where the polarization data are breaking into new ground, providing more information about gravitational waves than we learned before. The BICEP2 signal was a surprise, and its ultimate resolution is still a work in progress. The data we need to address these questions about inflation are within sight, and whatever the answers are, they are going to be interesting, so stay tuned.