A Tale of Two CMB Measurements

While trying to decide what to blog about this week, I happened to run across this article by Matthew Francis on Ars Technica.

Apparently, researchers have managed to use Planck‘s measurement of the Cosmic Microwave Background to indirectly measure a more obscure phenomenon, the Cosmic Neutrino Background.

The Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB is often described as the light of the Big Bang, dimmed and spread to the present day. More precisely, it’s the light released from the first time the universe became transparent. When electrons and protons joined to form the first atoms, light no longer spent all its time being absorbed and released by electrical charges, and was free to travel in a mostly-neutral universe.

This means that the CMB is less like a view of the Big Bang, and more like a screen separating us from it. Light and charged particles from before the CMB was formed will never be observable to us, because they would have been absorbed by the early universe. If we want to see beyond this screen, we need something with no electric charge.

That’s where the Cosmic Neutrino Background comes in. Much as the CMB consists of light from the first time the universe became transparent, the CNB consists of neutrinos from the first time the universe was cool enough for them to travel freely. Since this happened a bit before the universe was transparent to light, the CNB gives information about an earlier stage in the universe’s history.

Unfortunately, neutrinos are very difficult to detect, the low-energy ones left over from the CNB even more so. Rather than detecting the CNB directly, it has to be observed through its indirect effects on the CMB, and that’s exactly what these researchers did.

Now does all of this sound just a little bit familiar?

Gravitational waves are also hard to detect, hard enough that we haven’t directly detected any yet. They’re also electrically neutral, so they can also give us information from behind the screen of the CMB, letting us learn about the very early universe. And when the team at BICEP2 purported to measure these primordial gravitational waves indirectly, by measuring the CMB, the press went crazy about it.

This time, though? That Ars Technica article is the most prominent I could find. There’s nothing in major news outlets at all.

I don’t think that this is just a case of people learning from past mistakes. I also don’t think that BICEP2’s results were just that much more interesting: they were making a claim about cosmic inflation rather than just buttressing the standard Big Bang model, but (outside of certain contrarians here at Perimeter) inflation is not actually all that controversial. It really looks like hype is the main difference here, and that’s kind of sad. The difference between a big (premature) announcement that got me to write four distinct posts and an article I almost didn’t notice is just one of how the authors chose to make their work known.

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