Thursday, March 20, 2014

How the Biggest Scientific Discovery of the Year Was Kept a Secret

Dark Sector Sunrise  

The sun rises at the South Pole, where the BICEP team’s telescope collected data.  

Great surprises in science don’t just happen–they’re engineered. 

When researchers announced earlier this week that they might have made what is essentially the scientific breakthrough of the year–echoes from the earliest fraction of a second after the Big Bang known as primordial B-mode polarizations–it seemed to come out of left field. Similarly large announcements, like the discovery of the Higgs boson, generally have followed months of speculation, rumors, and even leaks

It’s standard practice for researchers to keep tight-lipped about their results. No one wants to cavalierly mention half-finished data to a colleague and give them the wrong impression or worse, tip off a rival project. Yet scientists are human, and humans love to gossip. In this world of science blogs and Twitter, the BICEP2 collaboration maintaining secrecy so well is almost unheard of.

The researchers didn’t use some sort of unhackable connection and they didn’t pass notes written in indecipherable code. They had to rely on each other to keep quiet until they could casually drop a major discovery on the world. Here’s how they did it.

The search for primordial B-mode polarizations started in 2001 over a game of tennis. Physicist Jamie Bock, then a researcher at JPL (now at Caltech) had a regular match going with an astrophysics postdoc named Brian Keating (now at the University of California, San Diego).

“Brian would bug me about a degree scale polarization experiment,” said Bock. “And after every match I’d go ‘Uh huh, OK, sure.’ But after a while he started to convince me this was worth doing.”

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