As some readers may recall, back in March I wrote about the excitement in the physics community regarding new results that were published on the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. (see the original article here). By analyzing how the photons that were created in the early Universe were aligned, it appeared that the existence of the inflaton and inflationary theory had been proven after three decades. The new data also promised to have an impact on quantum gravity models, as some of the interactions that created this polarization could have been influenced by high energy and short range gravitational interactions. It was a very promising data set.

Unfortunately, as so often happens in the world of scientific research there is now doubt about the validity of the data set. The PLANCK experiment, which also studies the cosmic microwave background using other methods, has now announced that the regions of the sky that were being studied are filled with dust. This is in the form of small bits of matter that interact with the CMB and affect its polarization. That means that the original data set from the BICEP team might not be correct, because some or all of the observed polarization could be a more modern effect caused by microwaves scattering off of this dust.

Of course since they do not use identical methods of analyzing the data, the PLANCK team cannot definitively say that the BICEP data is wrong. And the BICEP team are claiming that they did remove the effects of dust, while others in the industry question whether all of the effects were removed. Ultimately we cannot know what the truth is until more data is collected, and more data is analyzed.

In the end, it is this conflict between experiments that will move science forward as each team pushed for more evidence and develops new methods. Whichever side is correct, it will be an important step forward for astrophysics.