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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Groupthink Problem in Modern Cosmology and Physics

Two months ago in March 2014 the BICEP2 study was released, and almost all cosmologists seemed to hail it as compelling evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation (the theory that the universe underwent exponential expansion in its first second, not to be confused with the more general theory of the Big Bang). Even after a scientific paper was published in April casting grave doubt on the conclusions, cosmologists continued to assert that the BICEP2 study had provided strong evidence for gravitational waves produced by cosmic inflation. There seemed to be only a handful of skeptical voices about this matter back in March and April, including this blog (here and here), and the blogs of a few scientists (such as here).

But in May 2014 the situation finally changed, after the devastating presentation of Raphael Flauger at Princeton (and the rumors that arose from it). A flood of skeptical stories began to appear in the press. Doubts about the BICEP2 study now seem to be spreading dramatically. The scientific journal Nature just published an article citing two new scientific papers (including this one) indicating that the BICEP2 observations can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing (nothing special), rather than anything from cosmic inflation or the Big Bang. The journal quotes a scientist saying, “There’s no evidence for the detection of gravitational waves. It’s consistent with dust. “

Why did almost the entire community of cosmologists seem to throw themselves for at least a month behind a conclusion that is now regarded as being extremely doubtful? Why did cosmologists speak again and again as if a “smoking gun” of cosmic inflation had been discovered, when no firm evidence had been found, and there were from the beginning plenty of reasons for being skeptical? To understand this embarrassment, we have to take a candid look at groupthink problems in modern cosmology.

Anyone who has taken a sociology course may remember the phenomenon. Groupthink is the tendency of a relatively small group to produce unwarranted decisions, largely because of sociological reasons pertaining to conformity. Groupthink can occur when a person belongs to a small group that regards itself very highly, and when fitting in with that group is regarded as extremely important. Groupthink can occur when few or no people in the group challenge the decision of the group, because each person wants to fit in with the group, and no one wants to be regarded as an outsider who is challenging the group.

To visualize groupthink, imagine a buffalo herd all traveling in the same direction, partially because no buffalo wants to view himself traveling in one direction when the rest of the herd is traveling in a different direction. Such an image gives you a feeling of what goes on in groupthink.

A classic example of groupthink occurred when the United States decided to support the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba that occurred in 1961. Everyone who advised President Kennedy on the matter agreed that supporting the invasion was a good idea. But the invasion was a disastrous failure that created tensions leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis that put the world on the brink of nuclear war. President Kennedy later complained, “The advice of every member that was brought into advise was unanimous – and the advice was wrong!”

But is there reason for thinking that the groupthink problem occurs among modern cosmologists? Exactly such a claim has been made by Martin Lopez-Corredoira in his paper “Non-Standard Models and the Sociology of Modern Cosmology.” Although this paper may go a bit too far in a skeptical direction, this is a paper with some perceptive observations, and it should be required reading for every cosmologist.

Lopez-Corredoira describes a severe groupthink problem in modern cosmology. He illustrates his thesis with the following quotation from the late cosmologist G. R. Burbidge:

We all know that new ideas and revolutions in science in general come from
the younger generation, who look critically at the contemporary
schemes, and having absorbed the new evidence, overthrow the
old views. This, in general, is the way that science advances.
However, in modern astronomy and cosmology, at present, this is
emphatically not the case. Over the last decade or more, the vast
majority of the younger astronomers have been conformists in
the extreme, passionately believing what their leaders have told
them, particularly in cosmology. In the modern era the reasons
for this are even stronger than they were in the past. To obtain an
academic position, to obtain tenure, to be successful in obtaining
research funds, and to obtain observing time on major telescopes,
it is necessary to conform.

Lopez-Corredoira describes what he calls a snowball effect. When a particular theory is created, it is rather like a small snowball descending from the top of a mountain. The theory may die away like a snowball that hits a rock, or the theory may be like a snowball rolling down the mountain, getting bigger and bigger as it accumulates more snow. But the snow being added to the snowball as it rolls down the mountain need not be evidence for the theory – it may be simply the accumulated financial and intellectual investment that has been made in that theory. Every time a new scientific paper is written based on that theory, it's more snow on the rolling snowball. Every time an expensive new scientific instrument is built to look for evidence for a theory, the snowball gets a lot more snow. Every time a big conference is called to discuss the theory, it's more snow on the snowball. Eventually it may get to the point where the theory is almost unchallenged, not because there is good evidence for it, but because no one wants to be the person standing at the bottom of the mountain with his hand out to stop the giant rolling snowball.

snowball effect
 A theory benefiting from the Snowball Effect

To understand some of the psychological and sociological factors that may influence the thinking of a modern cosmologist, imagine yourself as a cosmologist who recently entered the field. You have worked long and hard to gain acceptance into this small group of scientists, which enjoys great prestige. You want very much to be accepted by this elite little group. You know that your colleagues have invested many years in writing many hundreds of scientific papers relating to the theory of cosmic inflation. You know that scientists have chewed up more than $365 million dollars in taxpayer money in an attempt to look for evidence of cosmic inflation with projects such as LIGO. What you want most is acceptance in your peer group, and you know that group favors this theory of cosmic inflation. Are you going to be the one who says, “There's no real evidence for this theory – let's move on to something else?” Or, are you going to conform to the group's accepted wisdom, which will make it more likely for you to get research dollars and your next job or assignment?

Faced with such a choice, groupthink sets in, and you will probably “get with the program.” You will probably “tow the line,” and run in the same direction the herd is running in.

Groupthink seems to occur not just in modern cosmology, but in physics as well. String theory has dominated theoretical physics during the past several decades, despite a lack of any evidence to support it. In his excellent book The Trouble With Physics, physicist Lee Smolin suggests that groupthink and sociological factors may help explain the mysterious popularity of this theory. Groupthink may also explain why a theory such as supersymmetry continues to be defended by many scientists, despite taking bullets from observational tests that conflict with it, and despite a lack of evidence to support it.

Understanding this groupthink problem, we can better understand what went wrong with how scientists reacted to the BICEP2 study. A group of very qualified physicists had a press conference, and their press release announced the “first direct evidence” of cosmic inflation. A few opinion makers in the scientific community gave their thumbs up. It seemed clear in which direction the buffalo herd was going to run in this matter (even though there were lots of reasons for being skeptical, including the fact that the BICEP2 study seemed at odds with results from the Planck space telescope). So with a very few exceptions the rest of the cosmologists fell into line, with almost no dissent for more than a month. It was a temporary triumph of groupthink. But thanks to Raphael Flauger and a few others, who have shown that the BICEP2 signals can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing, many scientists seem to be realizing they jumped on this bandwagon too hastily.

If the current trend persists, and it turns out (as I strongly argued the day after the BICEP2 study was released) that the grandiose “evidence for cosmic inflation” conclusions of the BICEP2 study do not hold up, then cosmologists need to take a good hard look at that great big rolling snowball, the theory of cosmic inflation, A cosmologist should ask himself – am I supporting this theory because there is any compelling evidence for it, or am I just running with the buffalo herd?

I have a serious proposal to fight the groupthink syndrome in modern science. In addition to spending hundreds of millions of dollars on studies designed to verify or support the prevailing scientific theories, ten million dollars in taxpayer dollars should be reserved for annual prizes that we might call the Rebel Awards. These prizes should only be given to scientists who advance a new theory or discredit an existing theory, in a way that defies conventional scientific thinking and upsets the generally accepted opinion of other scientists in the same field. Each award should have a matching research grant, to be used by the winner for any serious research project that he chooses. This would help correct today's situation, where it seems that 100% of the financial incentive is for scientists to conform and “tow the line.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Moral Code in Seven Syllables

Suppose someone asks you: what moral code do you live by? That's a tough question to be asked by a potential suitor or employer (although since most corporations aren't too concerned with morality, you will probably never be asked such a question on a job interview).

Faced with such a question, you might rely on that old fallback, the Ten Commandments. But then someone might ask you to name some of them, and if you are like the average person, you might be out of luck. Most of us cannot remember more than a few of the Ten Commandments. In addition, it's hard to sincerely claim that you follow the Ten Commandments when one commandment is to honor the Sabbath (something most Americans don't do), and three other commandments are prohibitions against coveting -- rules Americans routinely violate when they see someone's Facebook post and think: I wish I had a car like that or I wish I had a house like that or I wish I had a wife that hot.

On this page Kent M. Keith makes an admirable attempt to state a universal moral code. The moral principles he states are all good and commendable. The only problem is that Keith ends up stating twenty moral principles, which is twice as many as found in the original Ten Commandments. It may be a great thing to be very concise when formulating a moral code. The shorter the moral code, the more likely you will be to remember it when faced with a moral choice. But is there some way that a good moral code can be stated in a single concise sentence?

Perhaps the best example of a concise statement of morality is the Golden Rule, which was stated by Jesus as: “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.” This is a very good moral principle that has been stated in one form or another in many religious traditions. Basically the same principle was stated centuries earlier by Confucius, who stated, “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

Although the Golden Rule is a very good rule, it may not give you a clear signal of what to do in morally relevant cases in which you are not directly acting on a person. For example, suppose you have a fast car that you want to try out on the highway, by driving really fast. Who exactly are the others you are doing unto in this case? It's not quite clear, so the Golden Rule gives you no clear signal in this case.

Let me suggest a one-line moral code. I don't claim that it is better than the Golden Rule, but at least my one-line moral code will be slightly more concise, consisting of only five words and only seven syllables. The one-line moral code I propose is below:
Don't harm, lie, or endanger.

It's remarkable how much is covered by these five words, which I'll refer to below as “the code.”

The code prohibits murder (that's covered under “don't harm.”)

The code prohibits assaulting someone (that's covered under “don't harm.”)

The code prohibits being so nasty to someone that it causes humiliation or serious mental harm (that's covered under “don't harm.”) It doesn't prohibit criticizing someone in a moderate way that is not harsh enough to cause harm (something that is often necessary).

The code prohibits doing something such as driving too fast or driving while intoxicated (that's covered under “don't... endanger.”)

The code prohibits vandalism and arson (that's covered under “don't harm,” which applies to both people and property).

The code does not directly prohibit adultery, but it indirectly pretty much rules out adultery by prohibiting lying (it's almost impossible to be much of an adulterer without lying), and the "don't...endanger" part may also rule out adultery, as adultery normally endangers the mental well-being of the spouse being cheated on.

The code does not prohibit safe premarital sex, but in light of the abundance of sexually transmitted diseases, the code does (in many or most cases) prohibit behavior such as casual unprotected sex with a stranger or multiple partners (that's covered by "don't...endanger.")

To a person who is conversant with global warming issues, the code does prohibit environmentally reckless or environmentally harmful behavior with a very high carbon footprint, as that seems to be covered by the “don't...endanger” part, which applies not just to other people but to our environment.

The code does not directly prohibit stealing, but as the code says “Don't harm,” it would seem to prohibit stealing from anyone who may be significantly harmed by the theft. So the code would seem to prohibit something such as stealing a car from a middle-class person (which would cause significant harm), but the code does not prohibit acts such as stealing a loaf of bread from a middle-class person, or stealing a car from a man who is so rich that he has five other cars (since neither thefts would cause significant harm). That doesn't seems like much of a deficiency, and it is debatable whether an absolute prohibition against theft makes sense in a world of outrageous and ever-growing economic inequality (for example, it is not obviously immoral for a starving child in Egypt to pass by a rich tourist in an outdoor cafe, and steal a pastry from his table).

The code does not prohibit you from being a bit sassy or irreverent to your parents, but the “don't harm” part at least prohibits you from being frequently obnoxious to them (as that presumably would cause mental harm to them). Moreover, the “don't ...endanger” part implies a duty for parents to look after their children with care (something even more important than children respecting parents).

I think for a mere seven syllables, this teensy-sized moral code has a very high “bang for the buck,” in the sense that it covers a lot of territory in a minimum of words.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Gigantic Mysterious Word Found in Deep Space

Believe it or not, the universe is producing gigantic letters that stretch across a distance far, far greater than the length of our galaxy of billions of stars. And some of those letters spell out a word.

The letters are formed by what are called quasar polarization vector alignments.
Quasars are very energetic astronomical objects associated with the cores of very distant galaxies. Quasars shoot out jets of gas in a particular direction. Scientists know of no reason why these jets of gas should not be pointing in random directions.

But surprisingly, what are called the polarization vectors of quasars tend to be aligned in the same direction in particular regions of space. In one gigantic area of space, they may be aligned in one direction, and in another huge region of space, they may be aligned in some different direction. This is an unexplained cosmic anomaly that leaves astrophysicists scratching their heads in bewilderment. A recent analysis of these alignments calculated a probability of only 0.003% (about 1 chance in 33,000) that such alignments would randomly occur in a particular region.

Scientists have made four maps of these alignments of quasar polarization vectors, each of which involves a different data set:
  1. A map of the alignments of quasar polarization vectors for the Southern Galactic Pole region, for quasars with a red shift of greater than .7 (far away quasars), which I will call Map 1.
  2. A map of the alignments of quasar polarization vectors for the Southern Galactic Pole region, for quasars with a red shift less than .7 (relatively close quasars), which I will call Map 2.
  3. A map of the alignments of quasar polarization vectors for the Northern Galactic Pole region, for quasars with a red shift of between 1 and 2.3 (far away quasars), which I will call Map 3.
  4. A map of the alignments of quasar polarization vectors for the Northern Galactic Pole region, for quasars with a red shift less than 1 (relatively close quasars), which I will call Map 4.
I must make clear that I have not looked through some large group of maps of quasar polarization vector alignments, looking for something special. There are only four maps involving this phenomenon, which are the four maps listed above. Map 3 and 4 are found in this scientific paper, and all four maps are found in this scientific paper.

Now let us look at Map 2. The little lines are polarization vectors of quasars which are lining up in the same direction in a particular area of space. Scientists do not understand why this should be happening. Judging from the laws of chance, it would seem this map should not even have any lines at all, and should have nothing but dots. We should not expect to see mostly lines on maps like this any more than you should expect to see lines forming from a pinch of sprinkles you toss on the top of your ice cream sundae.

quasar polarization alignment

On this map there is nothing very interesting in regard to letters, although at the top of the map there is an interesting case where 3 of the lines (with the same length) have the same center, forming what looks like an X with a line through its center. The figure makes an almost perfect six-pointed star figure, somewhat like the Star of David.

Map 1 doesn't look very interesting, so I won't show it. But Map 3 is more interesting. It is shown below:

An interesting aspect of this map is that the little lines can sometimes form simple shapes or letters of the alphabet – letters that are much larger than our entire Milky Way galaxy. In the image above, I see an almost perfect X shape. I also see four other X shapes, lots of I shapes, a T shape, and an M shape.

But there's more than just some letters – there's actually a word. Can you find the word written in polarization vector alignment lines stretching a distance greater than the length of our entire galaxy? Let me highlight the word in red so that you can notice it.

message in sky

The word is: Hi.

Now let's look at Map 4. The map is below, and again I see a word spelled out by the polarization vector alignment lines.

Can you find the word written in polarization vector alignment lines stretching a distance greater than the length of our entire galaxy? Let me highlight the word in red so that you can notice it.

cosmic message

It's the same word found on the earlier map – the word “Hi.”

A gigantic “Hi” from deep space, found not just once, but twice – astonishing. The letters span a distance much larger than the length of our entire galaxy of billions of stars. Could this be a message from some vast intergalactic empire spanning many, many galaxies, or perhaps a message from some cosmic creator? Is this the biggest “shout out” in the history of the universe, a great big friendly cosmic “hello”?

Both cases of “Hi” may well just be coincidences. But even so, one is still left with all of these quasar polarization vector alignments that seem astonishingly non-random. Why in blazes are quasar polarization vectors aligned on such vast scales, in seeming defiance of the laws of probability? Is some kind of uncanny cosmic choreography going on here?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Scientists Want a Billion Dollars for the Wrong Type of Ghost Study

A panel of physicists just recommended to the federal government that the United States should spend a billion dollars studying neutrinos, a type of subatomic particle. They propose building a giant neutrino beam that will shoot neutrinos 800 miles from a Fermilab facility in Illinois to a laboratory in South Dakota. The project is called the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment. 


This project can be called a ghost study, because neutrinos are known as ghost particles. Neutrinos are particles which were once believed to have no mass, but which are now believed to have the tiniest bit of mass, a mass much, much less than the mass of an electron (the least massive particle in an atom). About 100 trillion ghostly neutrinos pass through your body harmlessly every second.

Do we need to spend this billion dollars to verify that neutrinos exist? No, we already know that they exist. Do we need to spend this money to verify how much mass a neutrino has? No, we already know that pretty well. Do we need to study neutrinos because they are some crucial link in our existence? Not really. I could give you an explanation of why you probably wouldn't be here if it weren't for neutrinos (an explanation having to do with supernova explosions and the origin of heavy elements); but the fact is that you could probably live out the rest of your day just fine without any neutrinos.

So why do scientists want the billion dollars to study neutrinos? In this news story a physicist named Joe Lykken gives this explanation: “What CERN (the European collider operator) did for the Higgs boson, we want to do with the neutrino.” But that justification doesn't hold water. The CERN project verified the existence of the Higgs boson, and there is no need to verify the existence of neutrinos. We already know they exist.

The AP news article here discusses the project, but fails to give any good reason for its existence. Besides Lykken's statement, the article quotes a Cal Tech physicist who says, “Neutrinos could give scientists clues about the mysterious 'dark matter' of outer space and other 'weird astrophysical phenomena.' ” But dark matter is believed to be something entirely different from neutrinos. Asking for a billion dollars to play with neutrinos in order to understand dark matter is like asking for a billion dollars to study rocks so that you can understand trees.

I thought that perhaps the home page of the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment could do a better job of justifying the project, but I still found no coherent justification for the project on that page. The main relevant claim made is this: “Neutrinos may play a key role in solving the mystery of how the universe came to consist only of matter rather than antimatter.” Oh, really? So how come the CERN page discussing this mystery does not even mention the neutrino? And how come this larger Stanford PDF discussing that mystery in no way hints that it could be solved by learning about neutrinos? The “mystery of how the universe came to consist of matter rather than antimatter” is not a mystery involving neutrinos, but an entirely different class of particles: baryons.

Could it be that the main reason for the proposed neutrino project is that scientists just want a new billion dollar toy to play with? Could it be that this project is mainly just a big welfare program for physicists, with a minimal chance of justifying its cost? The proposed neutrino project seems to have “boondoggle” written all over it. I do not say this because I am some opponent of all large scientific projects (I am, in fact, a supporter of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is even more expensive than the neutrino project I am discussing).

I am reminded of another scientific project, the LIGO project which spent 375 million dollars of taxpayer dollars looking for gravitational waves (mainly in hopes of verifying a pet theory of cosmologists). The LIGO project came up empty-handed, completely failing to discover what it was looking for. In the case of this neutrino project, there doesn't even seem to be some clear goal that is being sought.

As it will study the “ghost particles” called neutrinos, but seems like an over-expensive giant boondoggle, we can call the proposed neutrino project “the wrong type of ghost study.” But that raises the question – could there be a right type of ghost study? Indeed, there could be. The right type of ghost study might be one that used only 1 percent of the cost of the proposed neutrino super-project, and used those funds (a mere 10 million dollars) to actually study...ghosts.

By ghosts I mean, of course, the unexplained phenomenon that human beings (including some very famous ones) have long reported seeing unexplained apparitions – sometimes what are reported to be the figures of human beings, and other times what are reported to be little glowing orbs or unexplained shadows.

I can think of several possible explanations:

Hypothesis 1: Everyone who reports seeing a ghost is just a fraud, a fool, or someone who got excited over something that had a natural explanation (such as some object falling because of gravity).
Hypothesis 2: There is some interesting physical glitch in the human brain that causes people to see things like ghosts that aren't really there.
Hypothesis 3: For some reason the human brain occasionally releases chemicals which causes people to have hallucinations of ghosts.
Hypothesis 4: Ghosts come from some other dimension, or some other time, due to some weird space-time glitch or phenomenon involving space-time wormholes.
Hypothesis 5: Ghosts are not just ordinary hallucinations, but a kind of bizarre psychokinetic hallucination, capable of affecting electronic media, which may explain why many people have reported photos of ghosts or sound recordings of ghost voices.
Hypothesis 6: People see ghosts because there is some kind of human soul that actually survives death (a hypothesis consistent with reports of near-death experiences).

These are all interesting possibilities, and regardless of what the truth is, if we were to spend about 10 million dollars in an organized, objective study of ghost sightings, we might be able to figure out which hypothesis is correct. Such an expenditure seems justified because this is a topic of great public interest which has a significant chance of discovering something important for a relatively small expenditure of funds. But you may object: oh, come on, the US government can't spend millions of dollars studying ghosts!

But I will remind the reader of two facts. First, the US government has already funded a 17-year project studying UFO's (the Project Blue Book of the United States Air Force). Second, the US military has already funded over the course of two decades a project studying psychic phenomena such as clairvoyance and remote viewing – the StarGate project discussed here. As the US government has already spent a long time studying UFO's and psychic phenomena, why shouldn't the US government fund a very modest scientific study of ghost sightings?

I could see why even a skeptic might support such a study. Right now investigations of ghost sightings seem to be done almost uniquely by television shows. There are several very popular series that do this, such as Celebrity Ghost Stories, Ghost Adventures, and A Haunting. But if the US government issues an official report on its investigation into ghosts, than perhaps a skeptic might be able to use that as cold water he can throw on such paranormal enthusiasm.

Such a federal research project on ghost sightings would be of great public interest, and could be done objectively and scientifically for relatively little cost (only 10 million dollars). We might call this the right type of ghost study. But it will never get funded. Instead, the US government will probably end up dropping 100 times more money (a billion dollars) studying ghostly neutrino particles that are of no interest to hardly anyone other than a very small group of physicists, in a project that is very unlikely to even answer any of the top questions of physicists.

We will probably spend a billion dollars on the wrong type of ghost study.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Let's Use Twitter to Test the Dream Precognition Hypothesis

On May 9, 2014 I had a very specific and unusual dream involving a meteor falling from the sky. Amazingly, the exact details of my dream came true a week after I had the dream.

My dream (which was quite short) consisted of only three elements:
  1. An image of a glowing bluish-white object (with a long shiny tail) descending diagonally from the night sky to the ground, as a meteor does.
  2. A sighting of a small glowing round object on the ground, at the spot where the descent ended.
  3. A discovery or realization that the small object was merely of earthly origin, not some object of alien manufacture. There was no story involved with this third part, just a kind of feeling that the small glowing object was nothing special, that it was of earthly origin.
On the morning I had this dream I recorded it as follows: “Had a dream of a meteor (UFO?) descending from the sky. It was glowing white. A little glowing object appeared on the ground. But I looked at it, and it was just made by some company (publicity stunt?).”

The dream did not actually involve anything about a publicity stunt. I added that phrase (with a question mark) when recording the dream, simply as a possible explanation for how an object descending like a meteor from the sky might be of earthly origin. At the time I could think of no other explanation.

One week later on May 16th it was reported that a strange meteor had been observed in the Chinese province of Heilongjiang, near Russia. Observers saw a big fireball in the sky. Observers reported that a huge ball of flame came crashing down into a vegetable garden. At the place where the meteor had struck the ground there were three strange round objects, one about two feet in width. One of the objects is shown below:

Courtesy of www.chinanews.com

Some speculated that the objects might be wreckage of a UFO. But it was later noticed that a Russian Proton M satellite launch from Kazakhstan had failed on the same day, burning up after launch. The Russians denied that their launch could have dumped wreckage in China. But the Chinese reported their tests indicated that the objects from the meteor crash are indeed from the Russian spacecraft that failed.

I looked at a video of the failure of the Russian satellite launch. When the video came to a particular point, my jaw dropped. There was an image that looked exactly like what I had seen at the beginning of my dream: a bluish-white meteor with a long tail like a comet, descending diagonally from the sky, against the backdrop of a black sky. Below is the image from point 1:51 in the video, which exactly matches what I saw at the beginning of my dream: 

So let's compare all the elements of my May 9th dream to the reality reported on March 16:
  1. A night-time image of a glowing bluish-white object with a long shiny tail, descending diagonally from the sky to the ground, as a meteor does. Exact match to Heilongjiang incident.
  2. A sighting of a small glowing round object on the ground, at the spot where the descent ended. Exact match to the Heilongjiang incident. Since it was reported that the objects crashed to the ground in a huge ball of flame, we can assume the hot metal objects were glowing for at least a while.
  3. A discovery or realization that the small object was merely of earthly origin, not some object of alien manufacture. Exact match to the Heilongjiang incident. The satellite was an Express-AM4R satellite made by the Russian Satellite Communications Company, and my original description of the dream said the small object was "just made by some company."

There is only one problem with the story I have told here: I can't prove that I really had the dream on May 9th. This is because the only place I recorded my unusual dream was in a text file on my computer.

But there is a way to avoid this type of problem. The solution is simple: when you have an unusual dream in your sleep that you think might one day turn out true, use Twitter, and do a tweet that describes your dream. You will then have proof that you had the dream on that particular day.

Twitter.com is a web site allowing its users to send out very brief messages called tweets, which are limited to 140 characters (about 30 words). A user can delete his own tweets, but once you have sent out a tweet, there is no way to either edit that tweet or change the date of that tweet. Twitter is therefore a great tool for proving exactly what you wrote at a particular time.

From now on whenever I have a distinctive dream that I think might come true, I intend to usually send out a tweet describing the dream exactly. I suggest that the same thing be done by any readers of this post who are interested in the possibility of dream precognition. Together we might be able to supply evidence for the claim that precognition can occur in dreams --a claim which numerous people have previously made, as you can see by doing a Google search for “dream precognition.”

Here are some guidelines that I suggest. If people follow these guidelines, it will be easy to use Twitter's search functionality to find all the tweets that were done by people following the protocol suggested here.

  1. If you have a distinctive dream that you think might come true, on the same morning you had the dream, use www.twitter.com to send out a tweet that briefly describes your dream.
  2. After describing the dream, use the hashtags #dream and #test. There are too many tweets using the hashtag #dream, but very few using both the hashtags #dream and #test. So it will be easy to search for detailed dream descriptions using a combined search for #dream and #test.
  3. Do not bother sending out a tweet describing a dream that has no chance of coming true. For example, if you dream that a pink leopard was walking on your ceiling, don't bother tweeting that.
  4. Do not bother sending out a tweet describing a dream if you can make the dream come true yourself just by making some decision. For example, there is no point in tweeting that you dreamed that you ate lime sherbet ice cream, because you can always decide to order that type of ice cream, which would not support the hypothesis of precognition.
  5. Make every effort to describe as many details as you can from your dream, as concisely as you can. In the rare case when you can't describe everything in one tweet, end the first tweet with “continued in next tweet,” and finish your description in a follow-up tweet.
  6. Do not bother sending out a tweet describing some dream if there is no way to verify if the dream came true (for example, “I dreamed I felt mad at my boss”), or if the event seemed fairly likely to come true beforehand -- for example, “I dreamed I went walking with my wife."
  7. By all means do tweet any dream involving some event that can be publicly verified by doing a Google search or a news search.
  8. If you remember a very distinctive and unusual image from your dream, and can't describe it very well, use a simple drawing tool like Paint to make a sketch, save your sketch as an image file, and add the sketch as a file attachment to your tweet (by pressing the little Camera button you can see below). 
If people follow this protocol, we will be conducting a mass experiment that may provide evidence for the hypothesis that precognition can occur in dreams. People will later be able to find these dream descriptions by doing a Twitter search for #dream and #test. 

An example of a tweet that uses this protocol: 

An example of a search for tweets that used the protocol:

If readers of this post follow this protocol, people can then do Google searches and news searches to verify whether some of these dreams actually came true. Through such a method we may be able to accumulate substantial evidence for dream precognition.

To those who think such an exercise is a complete waste of time, I refer you to my previous post 'Feeling the Future' Study Replicated While Skeptics Fume, which discusses a recent meta-analysis finding that Daryl Bem's controversial “Feeling the Future” experiment on precognition has been well replicated. Having had the dream described here, along with an earlier dream of the World Trade Center's collapse (which I had several months before September 2001), I can merely assert that an organized experiment testing dream precognition may well be a worthwhile undertaking. 

Postscript: This very weird incident may have just got even more weird. The Mysterious Universe site now has a video showing a little white speck moving in towards the Russian rocket just before it malfunctioned. The site is suggesting it may be a missile or UFO that caused the destruction of the rocket. I have no idea whether such a claim has any credibility, but while watching the video I do see a little white speck moving in toward the satellite. The story, with the video, can be seen here.  An additional story maintaining the same thing can be found here

Post-postscript: Besides the hypothesis that precognition can occur in dreams, there is also a hypothesis that what is called retrocognition can occur in dreams. Retrocognition is an alleged paranormal case of knowing or sensing or having an idea of something after it occurred, even though you never learned of it through normal means.

I must relate here a personal incident that makes me something less than completely hostile to the possibility of such a thing. On May 15, 2014 I had the most startling image in one of my dreams. It was an image of a noose hanging from what looked like a door frame (although I could see no door). Now the loop of the noose was around the neck of a female. But this was not a dream of someone dying by hanging, because in my dream (oddly enough) the female was somehow levitating (or being levitated) so that the noose did not strangle her.

The dream seemed incredibly weird, like something that could never happen. But within a few days I was astounded to read that something very much like this had happened three days earlier, a few days before my dream. Some boy was playing with a karate belt, and had wrapped it around a wooden playground structure that resembled a door frame. The belt accidentally became a noose, and a girl got her neck accidentally stuck in this noose. But the girl did not die. The boy pushed the girl up so that she was not strangled by the noose – producing an effect like the levitation in my dream.

I was completely unaware of this incident when I had my dream that bears an uncanny resemblance to it.

Post-post-postscript: Many cases of seemingly precognitive dreams have been recorded, including dreams of Mark Twain and Lincoln. See this link for a more recent example -- a second-string player who scored a winning goal in a World Cup game two days after telling his teammates that he had a dream of doing just that. For many other similar examples, see Dr. Larry Dossey's excellent book The Science of Premonitions.

Post-post-post-postscript: See this blog post for two meta-analysis surveys of scientific studies on precognition. Both find a very significant effect.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cloud Towers: A Science Fiction Story

The Cloud Towers had been built by the rich when the planet started to get much warmer because of global warming.

The energy crisis had got much worse, as the world started to run out of easily recoverable fossil fuels. The idea behind the Cloud Towers was simple: the rich would live way, way up in the sky. Even if the power failed, people living in the Cloud Towers would do okay. They would rely on solar energy for lighting and computer use, and would simply open their windows if it got too hot. Living way up in the sky, they would get plenty of breezes that would keep them cool, along with a good deal of mist from the clouds.

towers in clouds

Eventually it started to get warmer and warmer on the planet's surface. Some people living on the ground tried to force their way into the luxurious and cool apartments of the Cloud Towers. So the people in the Cloud Towers stocked up on food, and blocked off the stairways and elevator shafts of the Cloud Towers, so no one could come up and bother them.

For many years the people in the Cloud Towers lived by themselves. The people heard of chaos and hardships on the surface of the planet, but that didn't bother them. They had everything they needed in their luxurious apartments high up in the sky. Eventually they stopped receiving television programs. The people in the Cloud Towers no longer even knew what was happening on the planet's surface, or what conditions were like on the ground.

But one day someone in the Cloud Towers noticed that the stored food was finally starting to run low.

We have only a few months left of food,” said James Arkenstone. “We've got to do something.”

Maybe we can 3D print some more food,” suggested Alice, James' girlfriend.

How can we do that?” said James. “We don't have the raw materials for that.”

Eventually James came up with a daring plan. With the help of others, he would clear away the obstacles that had been placed in the stairways of their Cloud Tower, allowing him to go down to ground level and check whether the surface of the planet was still habitable.

When they finished clearing away the obstacles, James looked down the stairways of the tower, and saw the path to the bottom was unobstructed.

Who wants to go with me?” asked James. There were no replies.

Thanks a million,” said James sarcastically, and began walking down the stairs alone. It took him nine hours to walk down the seemingly endless stairwell. He made it to the lobby of the great tower. The vacant lobby was in a state of decay, and had been vandalized. He looked outside, wondering whether he would feel a blast of heat when he passed through the front doors.

But when he got outside, he found the temperature was not too bad. James went walking around, talking to as many people as he could.

James finally found out the truth. The human race had run out of fossil fuels, or at least all of the fossil fuels that were easy and economical to extract. Once that had happened, civilization had gone into a great decline. It was like the fall of the Roman Empire. Many had died of starvation.

But there was one good thing about it: the decline in fossil fuel use had checked the growth of global warming. The temperatures had finally stabilized.

After finding this out, James returned to his Cloud Tower. He walked all the way up the stairs. It took him three days to climb up the seemingly endless flights of stairs.

Returning to his people, James told them of the situation. Life as they had known it was over, James said. Their stored food had almost run out. There was only one option left for them, James argued: they must abandon their luxury apartments in the sky, and return to the surface of the planet. Then they would have a variety of options: to search for food, to fish for food, or to grow food themselves.

After much debate, most of the people in his Cloud Tower agreed. So they packed up some of their goods, and got ready to take the long, long walk down the tower stairs.

Alice took one last look out the window, and for the last time she watched the clouds drift by at eye level.

Goodbye, my lovely cloud home,” Alice said tearfully. “Goodbye forever.”

No more lazy, rarefied 'cloud life' for us,” said James. “From now on, we're going to be dusty, hustling, hardscrabble creatures of the ground.”

Monday, May 19, 2014

God, Evil, and Perpetual Orgasms

The best argument for atheism is probably what is called the argument from evil. This is the argument that if a God existed, he would not allow so much suffering and hardship as we observe on our planet.

Such an argument may at first seem very compelling, particularly when you are suffering from a bad toothache. However, there are two thought experiments one can try that seem to greatly weaken such an argument. After we try either thought experiment, the argument from evil seems much less compelling.

Thought Experiment 1: The Question at the End of the Billion Years

To do this thought experiment, you must imagine that it is a billion years in the future. Imagine that you died after living out your mortal life, a life including great hardships and suffering. Imagine that you then found yourself in some kind of blissful afterlife. Imagine that your mortal life of hardships was followed by a billion years of glorious, wonderful happiness in some heavenly afterlife. Imagine also that your relatively brief earthly sufferings gave you a greater appreciation of your happiness in this afterlife, simply because someone who has known suffering is more likely to appreciate and enjoy happiness than someone who has never known any suffering (the latter person being more likely to be jaded and unexcited about any happiness he experiences).

Now the question to ask yourself is: at the end of this billion years, would you look back at the first 70 or 80 of these billion years and say to yourself: the fact that I suffered then suggests that there is no God?

The answer to this question is: no, you would not. Indeed, after the end of such a billion years, such a question would seem almost absurd.

Now a critic might suggest that it is not fair to ask this question, on the grounds that we have no evidence that people will experience such an afterlife. This is actually a most debatable assertion, as there does exist what many argue is a significant body of evidence (including near-death experiences) that may well suggest a strong possibility of an afterlife.

Also, the possibility being mentioned here (that individuals will experience a long blissful afterlife) cannot be excluded by anyone arguing against the existence of an all-powerful loving God, given that such a possibility may well be a consequence of such a being's existence, or something that tends to follow from the existence of such a being. If X tends to follow from Y, and you are arguing against the existence of Y, you cannot exclude the possibility of X while you are debating whether Y exists. All consequences (or possible consequences) of a particular hypothesis must be “on the table” whenever we are considering whether that hypothesis is correct. So the possibility that everyone will experience a long blissful afterlife cannot be excluded as a non-possibility while we are debating whether a particular argument against the existence of God is valid. In short, it seems quite legitimate to evoke Thought Experiment 1 in the context of this discussion about whether the argument from evil is a good argument.

Thought Experiment 2: A Human Race Enjoying Perpetual Orgasmic Pleasure

Those who say that evil and suffering argues against the existence of God often speak as if maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain would be the chief ends that any good and omnipotent deity would pursue. So let's go forward all the way with such thinking. Let us imagine an Earth on which every person experiences the utmost pleasure every day, along with absolutely no pain. We can imagine exactly how this might work.

Let us imagine a planet Earth on which every human spends his or her entire life lying in bed. Each person is connected to a brain stimulation machine which sends out an electrical current that stimulates pleasure centers of the brain. It is, then, as if you are experiencing an orgasm all day long. But it is even better. Imagine that the brain stimulation machine produces the utmost pleasure for every person who uses it, better than the pleasure someone can get from heroin, cocaine, or the best sex imaginable.

Let us also imagine that the people lying in bed never get tired of this stimulation, that it is always as thrilling and pleasurable as it might be the first time. Let us also imagine that people don't mind lying in their beds all of their lives, and that they don't need any exercise. We can also imagine that the Earth is populated by robots who take care of all human needs, keep the electricity running, and give us humans daily injections which give us the required nutrients and water.

Under such circumstances, every human would experience the utmost pleasure all of their lives, and no human would experience any pain. So, this ultra-blissful ever-orgasmic existence would be something like an ideal existence for the human race, right?

Wrong. I'm sure most readers will be disgusted by this concept of human existence. The average person will have a very strong kind of intuition: no, no, no, that is not how the human race should ever exist.

But let us analyze: why exactly is it that we sense so strongly that this “perpetual orgasm” existence would not be a good existence for humans? If we figure this out, it may actually shed insights relevant to the problem of evil.

One reason why this “perpetual orgasm” existence would not be a good existence for the human race may be that diversity of experience is very important. One problem with the perpetual orgasm scenario is that if it existed we would live lives that are pitifully limited in terms of diversity of experiences. Even though we can't say exactly why, we can somehow sense that it is somehow better to live lives that are rich in many types of experiences.

Another reason why this “perpetual orgasm” existence would not be a good existence for the human race may be that we put a strong value on overcoming difficulties. The people we admire the most are those who have overcome great difficulties, moral, social, or physical, not people who have always lived in the lap of luxury without any setbacks or hardships.

Another reason why this “perpetual orgasm” existence would not be a good existence for the human race may be that we think the most meaningful moments of our lives are those that involve helping other people in need, but there would be no opportunities for such moments if everyone spent all their lives living in perfect bliss.

Still another reason why this “perpetual orgasm” existence might not be a good existence for the human race may be that mankind's proper purpose (in the long run) is not to merely “bliss out” but to play a role in some stirring cosmic drama, some epic tale of evolution and progress, a far-flung galactic saga in which evils are gradually defeated and hard-won triumphs and glories are earned after a struggle involving great difficulties.

In light of such insights, perhaps we should abandon the simplistic assumption that if there existed a God that deity would give us lives of perfect pleasure and no pain. Perhaps instead such a deity might create a universe that did offer a rich spectrum of experiences, that did offer many chances for overcoming great hardships, that did offer abundant opportunities for helping others in need, that did include opportunities for rising from lowly or sad states to higher and happier states, that did include the possibility of species such as ours participating as heroes in some glorious epic of progress and galactic evolution.

Such a universe might even be...our universe.

Ad astra per aspera

Saturday, May 17, 2014

One Insanely Eerie Thing About the Neutron

I had quite a few readers for my previous blog post 4 Insanely Eerie Things About the Electron. Now let me discuss another of the basic subatomic particles: the neutron. Having no involvement with electricity, neutrons have a reputation as being rather boring particles. I will not be able to list four incredibly strange aspects of the neutron. And I may not be able to list anything as insanely eerie as this report from yesterday's NY Daily News. But there is one incredibly strange and improbable thing about the neutron which no scientist has been able to explain in a way that removes astonishment. This is simply the fact that neutrons are electrically neutral, having no net electrical charge at all. Let me explain why this is much, much less likely than you winning 100 million dollars in the Powerball lottery tomorrow.

If a neutron were not composed of any smaller charged particles, then there would be nothing particularly improbable about the fact that neutrons are electrically neutral. But according to the Standard Model of Physics, the neutron is composed of three smaller charged particles. The Standard Model says that a neutron is composed of one Up quark and two Down quarks.

According to the Standard Model of Physics, the Up quark has a positive electric charge equal to two thirds of the charge of a proton. The Down quark has a negative electric charge equal to one third the charge of the proton. The amount of positive charge in the neutron therefore exactly balances the amount of negative charge in the neutron, leaving the neutron with a net electric charge of 0.

I can illustrate this balance by the following visual. The scale shows the positive charge of the neutron on the left, and the negative charge of the neutron on the right. The two balance each other precisely (as represented by the balanced scale).


How precise is this balance? In the above visual I only use 9 decimal places to avoid making the numbers too small to read. But the actual balance is to at least twenty decimal places. The exact figure given in this scientific paper is that the neutron charges is less than 1.8 X 10-21 of an electron charge. For this to be true, the positive charge within a neutron must differ from the negative charge within the neutron by less than than 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000.

It would seem that the chance of this coincidentally happening is incredibly low. To give an analogy, imagine you make a great deal of money as a Wall Street investment banker, and your spouse is always losing money at the casino. At the end of the year, you calculate your net income, and find that even though you've made millions this year, when you subtract your spouse's gambling losses, you find that you net income is exactly 0 dollars and 0 cents, because your spouse's gambling losses coincidentally exactly canceled out your income, to the penny.

But isn't there some way to avoid believing that we have been blessed by a coincidence in this matter, a coincidence with a probability of less than 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000? We might avoid the coincidence if we could say that an Up quark is made up of exactly two Down quarks – except that wouldn't really work, because the charge of the Down quark is negative and the charge of the Up quark is positive. Also, scientists do not actually think that an Up quark is made up of two Down quarks.

We might also avoid the coincidence if we had some good basis in believing in a required quantization of electric charge – a reason why electric charge must necessarily occur in a multiple of one third of the proton charge or one third of the electron charge. But no such reason is known. In fact, the scientific paper I just cited says at its beginning, “The Standard Model with three generations does not have electric charge quantization.”

One may ask whether this coincidence is the same coincidence as the fact that the proton charge exactly equals the electron charge (the only difference being that the proton charge is positive and the electron charge is negative). No, that is a separate coincidence, but one equally improbable, also requiring something with a chance smaller than 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The Standard Model gives us three stable charged particles: the Up quark with a charge of 2/3e, the Down quark with a charge of -1/3e, and the electron with a charge of -1e (where e is the proton charge of 1.60217657 coulomb). Protons are made of 2 Up quarks and one Down quark, and neutrons are made of 2 Down quarks and one Up quark. We have two separate coincidences here: (1) the fact that the charge of the Up quark is precisely twice the charge of the Down quark (not considering the sign), and (2) the fact that 2 Up quarks and a Down quark (the constituents of a proton) have a total charge that adds up to a number exactly equal to the charge of the electron (not considering the sign). Experiments have verified that the proton charge and the electron charge differ by less than 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (not considering the signs).

The second coincidence is perhaps more astonishing, given the fact that the rest mass of the proton is 1836 times larger than the rest mass of the electron, but I won't dwell on this fact given that this post is about the neutron.

Both of these coincidences are necessary for our existence, as are numerous other coincidences discussed here. Is there some simple way to visualize this strange situation, in which a habitable universe depends on an exquisite balance within nature? Perhaps the following visual will do. The spiral galaxy symbolizes our habitable universe. The upside-down pyramid symbolizes the degree of balance required for that habitability. 

cosmic fine-tuning
The exquisite balance


Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Talk at Princeton Deflates the Grandiose Super-inflated BICEP2 Claims

In March the BICEP2 study announced observations that were hailed as a “smoking gun” proof of the theory of cosmic inflation, a theory that originated as an attempt to explain away various eerie problems of fine-tuning or “unnatural coordination” in the Big Bang (problems known as the horizon problem and the flatness problem). But this week rumors have been swirling that the findings of the BICEP2 study may not hold up. However, the supporters of the cosmic inflation theory have kept saying that the BICEP2 findings “remain robust.”

Today may be the day that BICEP2 goes from “robust” to “bust.” A scientist has just finished a talk at Princeton University which spells bad news for anyone thinking that BICEP2 has provided any evidence for the theory of cosmic inflation.

The talk was delivered by scientist Raphael Flauger, and the slide show from his talk can be downloaded here.

BICEP2 detected what is known as b-mode polarization, something that could be produced by cosmic inflation in the universe's first second, but which can also be produced by ordinary things that do not come from the Big Bang: gravitational lensing, synchrotron radiation and dust (all originating long after the universe was born). The question is: can the BICEP2 observations be explained by ordinary things like dust and gravitational lensing, or can they only be explained by assuming some super-special cosmic inflation in the universe's first second?

Flauger presents updated models of the combined effects of dust polarization and gravitational lensing, which he shows in the graph below (from page 39 of the pdf) :

BICEP2 foreground

The colored bands are the b-mode polarization effects we would expect to see from dust, other ordinary foreground effects, and gravitational lensing, according to Flauger. Notice that they overlap almost exactly with the BICEP2 observations. In fact, if one uses a combination of the BICEP2 observations and similar preliminary observations from a related team (Keck), then basically 9 out of 9 observations can be explained by assuming ordinary, run-of-the-mill things like dust and gravitational lensing (not the super-special cosmic inflation from the universe's first second).

This result is devastating to the grandiose, super-inflated claims of those claiming that BICEP2 has provided evidence for cosmic inflation. The Princeton presentation suggests the BICEP2 observations do not come from the Big Bang or the dawn of time. 

Flauger then uses another, different way of estimating the foreground contribution of dust and gravitational lensing, one based on what are called column densities. He gets the same result: a model indicating that all BICEP2 observations can be explained by the dust, gravitational lensing, and other ordinary foreground effects. In fact, Flauger gets the same predictions using two different techniques, which suggests he's on the right track. Below is page 52 of his presentation: 
BICEP2 foreground

Yesterday I published a blog post arguing for the same thing, that the BICEP2 observations can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing, not from some super-special cosmic inflation at the dawn of time. It is nice to have my conclusion supported the next day by a presentation at Princeton University.

It may not quite yet be the day for the fervent BICEP2 advocates to wave the white flag, but I would suggest that they at least get one ready (along with an explanation of exactly why they told us with such assurance again and again that some ambiguous observations were proof of something from the universe's first second).  Postscript: the Resonaances blog (written by a physicist) has just come out with a post which pretty much says the same thing I say in this post, commenting on the same Princeton talk, and suggesting that the BICEP2 result "will not stand."   

Post-postscript: After repeatedly writing as if it was a decided fact that the BICEP2 observations are gravitational waves from primordial cosmic inflation,  physicist Sean Carroll now tweets that it is merely "even money" that such is the case.   

Post-post-postscript. In this article in the scientific journal Nature, it is explained that two recent scientific papers have concluded that there is no significant evidence that the BICEP2 signals are from cosmic inflation or gravitational waves, with dust and cosmological lensing being an equally plausible explanation. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why a New Planck Paper Casts Grave Doubts on the “Epic” BICEP2 Study

In March the BICEP2 study announced observations of what is called b-mode polarization. The study was declared to be “direct evidence” for the theory of cosmic inflation, the theory that the universe underwent a period of exponential expansion during its first second. But in recent days rumors have been swirling that the study (hailed an an epic breakthrough) may not hold up. Today National Geographic published a piece entitled “Big Bang Discovery Comes Under Fire.”

Let me explain exactly why a new scientific paper by the Planck team throws grave doubt on the BICEP2 study, by making it seem rather likely that the “epic discovery” may be merely the observation of ordinary, run-of-the-mill dust. I will use scientific visuals rather than rumors.

First let us look at a graph from a scientific paper by another scientific team (POLARBEAR) that is doing studies very similar to the BICEP2 study. It is a graph with the same scale and legends as the key graph of the BICEP2 paper. The graph is below.

Graph 1, from the POLARBEAR scientific paper

The graph above shows some purple lines. The lower dark-dashed purple line shows b-mode polarization observations we would expect to see from galactic dust, if a parameter called the polarization fraction (represented by the letter p) is equal to 1.5%. The higher light-dashed purple line shows b-mode polarization observations we might expect to see from galactic dust, if a parameter called the polarization fraction (represented by the letter p) is equal to 10%.

Below is the key graph from the BICEP2 paper. Notice that this diagram and the first diagram are plotting the same thing on the same scale (the only difference being that the POLARBEAR graph goes down slightly lower on the scale).

Graph 2, from the BICEP2 scientific paper

Because these two graphs plot the same thing on the same scale, it is very easy to take the 10% dust polarization line from the first graph and move it to the second graph. When we do that, we get the following graph:

Graph 3, combining the BICEP2 graph with one line from the POLARBEAR graph

This graph should be very worrying for anyone who thinks that the BICEP2 observations are from the Big Bang or cosmic inflation. The graph shows that if there was dust polarization of about 10%, then that could explain the BICEP2 observations (as the purple line in the graph above cuts right through the black dots representing the BICEP2 observations). I don't have a graph showing 13% dust polarization, but that would be a purple line higher than the purple line above, and in such a case all of the BICEP2 observations could be explained from a combination of dust polarization and gravitational lensing, shown by the solid red line in the graph.

So the key issue is: how high is this dust polarization fraction? If it's only 1.5% then the BICEP2 team has little to worry about, but if it's 10% or 15% then all the BICEP2 observations can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing, and the claims of an “epic Big Bang breakthrough” would seem to crumble completely.

In the BICEP2 paper the scientists refer to a preliminary pdf which they apparently used in estimating the polarization fraction, a PDF with the following visual showing dust polarization fractions in various regions of the sky:

Graph 4, preliminary Planck map used by BICEP2

Notice the legend at the bottom that indicates the dust polarization fraction, which extends from 0% (deep blue) to 20% (red). The BICEP2 observations were from a region around the bottom middle of this map. Based on the map above, you might have estimated that there was a dust polarization fraction between about 5% and 7%. That would translate to a purple line uncomfortably close to the 10% line in my combined graph above (graph 3), but it would still leave a little breathing room.

However, in the past two weeks the Planck team has published a scientific paper that includes a revised version of the graph above. The graph (which excludes certain areas) is shown below:

Planck dust map

Graph 5, the later Planck map published in a scientific paper

As you can see, this is basically the same graph as the previous graph, but there's one big difference. Many of the regions which used to be yellow are now red. This means many of the regions listed as having only about 10% dust polarization are now shown with a much higher level of polarization – a polarization of almost 20%.

The map above does not show the region at the bottom middle from which the BICEP2 observations were made. But the best guess one can make from these two maps (keeping in mind that the second one is the later and more accurate one) is that the polarization fraction in the area of the sky observed by BICEP2 is at least 10%. In fact, table 2 of the above Planck paper tells us that the average dust polarization fraction (considering all regions) is 19%.

Such a result casts very grave doubt on the pretentious cosmic claims of the BICEP2 team. If the dust polarization is greater than 10% in the area observed by BICEP2, it means the dust polarization line is even higher than the purple line I have drawn for graph 3. In such a case all the BICEP2 observations can be explained by ordinary dust and gravitational lensing, not something special that happened in the Big Bang.

It will be quite an irony if this turns out to be true. The scientists who thought they were seeing something extraordinarily special (an echo from the first second of the universe's creation) may really just have detected polarization from something as ordinary and common and lowly as the dust on your shoes.