Tag Archives: astrophysics

Simple Rules Don’t Mean a Simple Universe

It’s always fun when nature surprises you.

This week, the Perimeter Colloquium was given by Laura Nuttall, a member of the LIGO collaboration.

In a physics department, the colloquium is a regularly scheduled talk that’s supposed to be of interest to the entire department. Some are better at this than others, but this one was pretty fun. The talk explored the sorts of questions gravitational wave telescopes like LIGO can answer about the world.

At one point during the talk, Nuttall showed a plot of what happens when a star collapses into a supernova. For a range of masses, the supernova leaves behind a neutron star (shown on the plot in purple). For heavier stars, it instead results in a black hole, a big black region of the plot.

What surprised me was that inside the black region, there was an unexpected blob: a band of white in the middle of the black holes. Heavier than that band, the star forms a black hole. Lighter, it also forms a black hole. But inside?

Nothing. The star leaves nothing behind. It just explodes.

The physical laws that govern collapsing stars might not be simple, but at least they sound straightforward. Stars are constantly collapsing under their own weight, held up only by the raging heat of nuclear fire. If that heat isn’t strong enough, the star collapses, and other forces take over, so the star becomes a white dwarf, or a neutron star. And if none of those forces is strong enough, the star collapses completely, forming a black hole.

Too small, neutron star. Big enough, black hole. It seems obvious. But reality makes things more complicated.

It turns out, if a star is both massive and has comparatively little metal in it, the core of the star can get very very hot. That heat powers an explosion more powerful than a typical star, one that tears the star apart completely, leaving nothing behind that could form a black hole. Lighter stars don’t get as hot, so they can still form black holes, and heavier stars are so heavy they form black holes anyway. But for those specific stars, in the middle, nothing gets left behind.

This isn’t due to mysterious unknown physics. It’s actually been understood for quite some time. It’s a consequence of those seemingly straightforward laws, one that isn’t at all obvious until you do the work and run the simulations and observe the universe and figure it out.

Just because our world is governed by simple laws, doesn’t mean the universe itself is simple. Give it a little room (and several stars’ worth of hydrogen) and it can still surprise you.

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What Space Can Tell Us about Fundamental Physics

Back when LIGO announced its detection of gravitational waves, there was one question people kept asking me: “what does this say about quantum gravity?”

The answer, each time, was “nothing”. LIGO’s success told us nothing about quantum gravity, and very likely LIGO will never tell us anything about quantum gravity.

The sheer volume of questions made me think, though. Astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology fascinate people. They capture the public’s imagination in a way that makes them expect breakthroughs about fundamental questions. Especially now, with the LHC so far seeing nothing new since the Higgs, people are turning to space for answers.

Is that a fair expectation? Well, yes and no.

Most astrophysicists aren’t concerned with finding new fundamental laws of nature. They’re interested in big systems like stars and galaxies, where we know most of the basic rules but can’t possibly calculate all their consequences. Like most physicists, they’re doing the vital work of “physics of decimals”.

At the same time, there’s a decent chunk of astrophysics and cosmology that does matter for fundamental physics. Just not all of it. Here are some of the key areas where space has something important to say about the fundamental rules that govern our world:

 

1. Dark Matter:

Galaxies rotate at different speeds than their stars would alone. Clusters of galaxies bend light that passes by, and do so more than their visible mass would suggest. And when scientists try to model the evolution of the universe, from early images to its current form, the models require an additional piece: extra matter that cannot interact with light. All of this suggests that there is some extra “dark” matter in the universe, not described by our standard model of particle physics.

If we want to understand this dark matter, we need to know more about its properties, and much of that can be learned from astronomy. If it turns out dark matter isn’t really matter after all, if it can be explained by a modification of gravity or better calculations of gravity’s effects, then it still will have important implications for fundamental physics, and astronomical evidence will still be key to finding those implications.

2. Dark Energy (/Cosmological Constant/Inflation/…):

The universe is expanding, and its expansion appears to be accelerating. It also seems more smooth and uniform than expected, suggesting that it had a period of much greater acceleration early on. Both of these suggest some extra quantity: a changing acceleration, a “dark energy”, the sort of thing that can often be explained by a new scalar field like the Higgs.

Again, the specifics: how (and perhaps if) the universe is expanding now, what kinds of early expansion (if any) the shape of the universe suggests, these will almost certainly have implications for fundamental physics.

3. Limits on stable stuff:

Let’s say you have a new proposal for particle physics. You’ve predicted a new particle, but it can’t interact with anything else, or interacts so weakly we’d never detect it. If your new particle is stable, then you can still say something about it, because its mass would have an effect on the early universe. Too many such particles and they would throw off cosmologists’ models, ruling them out.

Alternatively, you might predict something that could be detected, but hasn’t, like a magnetic monopole. Then cosmologists can tell you how many such particles would have been produced in the early universe, and thus how likely we would be to detect them today. If you predict too many particles and we don’t see them, then that becomes evidence against your proposal.

4. “Cosmological Collider Physics”:

A few years back, Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena suggested that the early universe could be viewed as an extremely high energy particle collider. While this collider performed only one experiment, the results from that experiment are spread across the sky, and observed patterns in the early universe should tell us something about the particles produced by the cosmic collider.

People are still teasing out the implications of this idea, but it looks promising, and could mean we have a lot more to learn from examining the structure of the universe.

5. Big Weird Space Stuff:

If you suspect we live in a multiverse, you might want to look for signs of other universes brushing up against our own. If your model of the early universe predicts vast cosmic strings, maybe a gravitational wave detector like LIGO will be able to see them.

6. Unexpected weirdness:

In all likelihood, nothing visibly “quantum” happens at the event horizons of astrophysical black holes. If you think there’s something to see though, the Event Horizon Telescope might be able to see it. There’s a grab bag of other predictions like this: situations where we probably won’t see anything, but where at least one person thinks there’s a question worth asking.

 

I’ve probably left something out here, but this should give you a general idea. There is a lot that fundamental physics can learn from astronomy, from the overall structure and origins of the universe to unexplained phenomena like dark matter. But not everything in astronomy has these sorts of implications: for the most part, astronomy is interesting not because it tells us something about the fundamental laws of nature, but because it tells us how the vast space above us actually happens to work.

Things You Don’t Know about the Power of the Dark Side

Last Wednesday, Katherine Freese gave a Public Lecture at Perimeter on the topic of Dark Matter and Dark Energy. The talk should be on Perimeter’s YouTube page by the time this post is up.

Answering twitter questions during the talk made me realize that there’s a lot the average person finds confusing about Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Freese addressed much of this pretty well in her talk, but I felt like there was room for improvement. Rather than try to tackle it myself, I decided to interview an expert on the Dark Side of the universe.

darth_vader

Twitter doesn’t know the power of the dark side!

Lord Vader, some people have a hard time distinguishing Dark Matter and Dark Energy. What do you have to say to them?

Fools! Light side astronomers call “dark” that which they cannot observe and cannot understand. “Fear” and “anger” are different heights of emotion, but to the Jedi they are only the path to the Dark Side. Dark Energy and Dark Matter are much the same: both distinct, both essential to the universe, and both “dark” to the telescopes of the light.

Let’s start with Dark Matter. Is it really matter?

You ask an empty question. “Matter” has been defined in many ways. When we on the Dark Side refer to Dark Matter, we merely mean to state that it behaves much like the matter you know: it is drawn to and fro by gravity, sloshing about.

It is distinct from your ordinary matter in that two of the forces of nature, the strong nuclear force and electromagnetism, do not concern it. Ordinary matter is bound together in the nuclei of atoms by the strong force, or woven into atoms and molecules by electromagnetism. This makes it subject to all manner of messy collisions.

Dark Matter, in contrast, is pure, partaking neither of nuclear nor chemical reactions. It passes through each of us with no notice. Only the weak nuclear force and gravity affect it. The latter has brought it slowly into clumps and threads through the universe, each one a vast nest for groupings of stars. Truly, Dark Matter surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.

Could Dark Matter be something we’re more familiar with, like neutrinos or black holes? What about a modification of gravity?

Many wondered as much, when the study of the Dark Side was young. They were wrong.

The matter you are accustomed to composes merely a twentieth of the universe, while Dark Matter is more than a quarter. There is simply not enough of these minor contributions, neutrinos and black holes, to account for the vast darkness that surrounds the galaxy, and with each astronomer’s investigation we grow more assured.

As for modifying gravity, do you seek to modify a fundamental Force?

If so, you should be wary. Forces, by their nature, are accompanied by particles, and gravity is no exception. Take care that your tinkering does not result in a new sort of particle. If so, you may be unknowingly walking the path of the Dark Side, for your modification may be just another form of Dark Matter.

What sort of things could Dark Matter be? Can Dark Matter decay into ordinary matter? Could there be anti-Dark Matter?

As of yet, your scientists are still baffled by the nature of Dark Matter. Still, there are limits. Since only rare events could produce it from ordinary matter, the universe’s supply of Dark Matter must be ancient, dating back to the dawn of the cosmos. In that case, it must decay only slowly, if at all. Similarly, if Dark Matter had antimatter forms then its interactions must be so weak that it has not simply annihilated with its antimatter half across the universe. So while either is possible, it may be simpler for your theorists if Dark Matter did not decay, and was its own antimatter counterpart. On the other hand, if Dark Matter did undergo such reactions, your kind may one day be able to detect it.

Of course, as a master of the Dark Side I know the true nature of Dark Matter. However, I could only impart it to a loyal apprentice…

Yeah, I think I’ll pass on that. They say you can only get a job in academia when someone dies, but unlike the Sith they don’t mean it literally.

Let’s move on to Dark Energy. What can you tell us about it?

Dark “Energy”, like Dark Matter, is named for what people on your Earth cannot comprehend. Nothing, not even Dark Energy, is “made of energy”. Dark Energy is “energy” merely because it behaves unlike matter.

Matter, even Dark Matter, is drawn together by the force of gravity. Under its yoke, the universe would slow down in its expansion and eventually collapse into a crunch, like the throat of an incompetent officer.

However, the universe is not collapsing, but accelerating, galaxies torn away from each other by a force that must compose more than two thirds of the universe. It is rather like the Yuuzhan Vong, a mysterious force from outside the galaxy that scouts persistently under- or over-estimate.

Umm, I’m pretty sure the Yuuzhan Vong don’t exist anymore, since Disney got rid of the Expanded Universe.

That perfidious Mouse!

Well folks, Vader is now on a rampage of revenge in the Disney offices, so I guess we’ll have to end the interview. Tune in next week, and until then, may the Force be with you!

You Go, LIGO!

Well folks, they did it. LIGO has detected gravitational waves!

FAQ:

What’s a gravitational wave?

Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time. As Einstein figured out a century ago, masses bend space and time, which causes gravity. Wiggle masses in the right way and you get a gravity wave, like a ripple on a pond.

Ok, but what is actually rippling? It’s some stuff, right? Dust or something?

In a word, no. Not everything has to be “stuff”. Energy isn’t “stuff”, and space-time isn’t either, but space-time is really what vibrates when a gravitational wave passes by. Distances themselves are changing, in a way that is described by the same math and physics as a ripple in a pond.

What’s LIGO?

LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In simple terms, it’s an observatory (or rather, a pair of observatories in Washington and Louisiana) that can detect gravitational waves. It does this using beams of laser light four kilometers long. Gravitational waves change the length of these beams when they pass through, causing small but measurable changes in the laser light observed.

Are there other gravitational wave observatories?

Not currently in operation. LIGO originally ran from 2002 to 2010, and during that time there were other gravitational wave observatories also in operation (VIRGO in Italy and GEO600 in Germany). All of them (including LIGO) failed to detect anything, and so LIGO and VIRGO were shut down in order for them to be upgraded to more sensitive, advanced versions. Advanced LIGO went into operation first, and made the detection. VIRGO is still under construction, as is KAGRA, a detector in Japan. There are also plans for a detector in India.

Other sorts of experiments can detect gravitational waves on different scales. eLISA is a planned space-based gravitational wave observatory, while Pulsar Timing Arrays could use distant neutron stars as an impromptu detector.

What did they detect? What could they detect?

The gravitational waves that LIGO detected came from a pair of black holes merging. In general, gravitational waves come from a pair of masses, or one mass with an uneven and rapidly changing shape. As such, LIGO and future detectors might be able to observe binary stars, supernovas, weird-shaped neutron stars, colliding galaxies…pretty much any astrophysical event involving large things moving comparatively fast.

What does this say about string theory?

Basically nothing. There are gravity waves in string theory, sure (and they play a fairly important role), but there were gravity waves in Einstein’s general relativity. As far as I’m aware, no-one at this point seriously thought that gravitational waves didn’t exist. Nothing that LIGO observed has any bearing on the quantum properties of gravity.

But what about cosmic strings? They mentioned those in the announcement!

Cosmic strings, despite the name, aren’t a unique prediction of string theory. They’re big, string-shaped wrinkles in space and time, possible results of the rapid expansion of space during cosmic inflation. You can think of them a bit like the cracks that form in an over-inflated balloon right before it bursts.

Cosmic strings, if they exist, should produce gravitational waves. This means that in the future we may have concrete evidence of whether or not they exist. This wouldn’t say all that much about string theory: while string theory does have its own explanations for cosmic strings, it’s unclear whether it actually has unique predictions about them. It would say a lot about cosmic inflation, though, and would presumably help distinguish it from proposed alternatives. So keep your eyes open: in the next few years, gravitational wave observatories may well have something important to say about the overall history of the universe.

Why is this discovery important, though? If we already knew that gravitational waves existed, why does discovering them matter?

LIGO didn’t discover that gravitational waves exist. LIGO discovered that we can detect them.

The existence of gravitational waves is no discovery. But the fact that we now have observatories sensitive enough to detect them is huge. It opens up a whole new type of astronomy: we can now observe the universe not just by the light it sheds (and neutrinos), but through a whole new lens. And every time we get another observational tool like this, we notice new things, things we couldn’t have seen without it. It’s the dawn of a new era in astronomy, and LIGO was right to announce it with all the pomp and circumstance they could muster.

 

My impressions from the announcement:

Speaking of pomp and circumstance, I was impressed by just how well put-together LIGO’s announcement was.

As the US presidential election heats up, I’ve seen a few articles about the various candidates’ (well, usually Trump’s) use of the language of political propaganda. The idea is that there are certain visual symbols at political events for which people have strong associations, whether with historical events or specific ideas or the like, and that using these symbols makes propaganda more powerful.

What I haven’t seen is much discussion of a language of scientific propaganda. Still, the overwhelming impression I got from LIGO’s announcement is that it was shaped by a master in the use of such a language. They tapped in to a wide variety of powerful images: from the documentary-style interviews at the beginning, to Weiss’s tweed jacket and handmade demos, to the American flag in the background, that tied LIGO’s result to the history of scientific accomplishment.

Perimeter’s presentations tend to have a slicker look, my friends at Stony Brook are probably better at avoiding jargon. But neither is quite as good at propaganda, at saying “we are part of history” and doing so without a hitch, as the folks at LIGO have shown themselves to be with this announcement.

I was also fairly impressed that they kept this under wraps for so long. While there were leaks, I don’t think many people had a complete grasp of what was going to be announced until the week before. Somehow, LIGO made sure a collaboration of thousands was able to (mostly) keep their mouths shut!

Beyond the organizational and stylistic notes, my main thought was “What’s next?” They’ve announced the detection of one event. I’ve heard others rattle off estimates, that they should be detecting anywhere from one black hole merger per year to a few hundred. Are we going to see more events soon, or should we settle into a long wait? Could they already have detected more, with the evidence buried in their data, to be revealed by careful analysis? (The waves from this black hole merger were clear enough for them to detect them in real-time, but more subtle events might not make things so easy!) Should we be seeing more events already, and does not seeing them tell us something important about the universe?

Most of the reason I delayed my post till this week was to see if anyone had an answer to these questions. So far, I haven’t seen one, besides the “one to a few hundred” estimate mentioned. As more people weigh in and more of LIGO’s run is analyzed, it will be interesting to see where that side of the story goes.

The Universe, Astronomy’s Lab

There’s a theme in a certain kind of science fiction.

Not in the type with laser swords and space elves, and not in cyberpunk dystopias…but when sci-fi tries to explore what humanity might do if it really got a chance to explore its own capabilities. In a word, the theme is scale.

We start out with a Dyson sphere, built around our own sun to trap its energy. As time goes on, the projects get larger and larger, involving multiple stars and, eventually, reshaping the galaxy.

There’s an expectation, though, that this sort of thing is far in our future. Treating the galaxy as a resource, as a machine, seems well beyond our present capabilities.

On Wednesday, Victoria Kaspi gave a public lecture at Perimeter about neutron stars. At the very end of the lecture, she talked a bit about something she covered in more detail during her colloquium earlier that day, called a Pulsar Timing Array.

Neutron stars are one of the ways a star can end its life. Too big to burn out quietly and form a white dwarf, and too small to collapse all the way into a black hole, the progenitors of neutron stars have so much gravity that they force protons and electrons to merge, so that the star ends up as a giant ball of neutrons, like an enormous atomic nucleus.

Many of these neutron stars have strong magnetic fields. A good number of them are what are called pulsars: stars that emit powerful pulses of electromagnetic radiation, often at regular intervals. Some of these pulsars are very regular indeed, rivaling atomic clocks in their precision. The idea of a Pulsar Timing Array is to exploit this regularity by using these pulsars as a gravitational wave telescope.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory, and we’ve observed their indirect effects, but so far we have yet to detect them directly. Attempts have been made: vast detectors like LIGO have been built that bounce light across long “arms”, trying to detect minute disruptions in space. The problem is, it’s hard to distinguish these disruptions from ordinary vibrations in the area, like minor earthquakes. Size also limits the effectiveness of these detectors, with larger detectors able to see the waves from bigger astronomical events.

Pulsar Timing Arrays sidestep both of those problems. Instead of trying to build a detector on the ground like LIGO (or even in space like LISA), they use the pulsars themselves as the “arms” of a galaxy-sized detector. Because these pulsars emit light so regularly, small disruptions can be a sign that a gravitational wave is passing by the earth and disrupting the signal. Because they are spread roughly evenly across the galaxy, we can correlate signals across multiple pulsars, to make sure we’re really seeing gravitational waves. And because they’re so far apart, we can use them to detect waves from some of the biggest astronomical events, like galaxies colliding.

ptas

Earth very much not to scale.

Longtime readers know that I find astronomy really inspiring, but Kaspi’s talk woke me up to a completely different aspect, that of our mastery of scale.

Want to dream of a future where we use the solar system and the galaxy as resources? We’re there, and we’ve been there for a long time. We’re a civilization that used nearby planets to bootstrap up the basic laws of motion before we even had light bulbs. We’ve honed our understanding of space and time using distant stars. And now, we’re using an array of city-sized balls of neutronium, distributed across the galaxy, as a telescope. If that’s not the stuff of science fiction, I don’t know what is.


 

By the way, speaking of webcast lectures, I’m going to be a guest on the Alda Center’s Science Unplugged show next week. Tune in if you want to hear about the sort of stuff I work on, using string theory as a tool to develop shortcuts for particle physics calculations.

What’s the Matter with Dark Matter, Matt?

It’s very rare that I disagree with Matt Strassler. That said, I can’t help but think that, when he criticizes the press for focusing their LHC stories on dark matter, he’s missing an important element.

From his perspective, when the media says that the goal of the new run of the LHC is to detect dark matter, they’re just being lazy. People have heard of dark matter. They might have read that it makes up 23% of the universe, more than regular matter at 4%. So when an LHC physicist wants to explain what they’re working on to a journalist, the easiest way is to talk about dark matter. And when the journalist wants to explain the LHC to the public, they do the same thing.

This explanation makes sense, but it’s a little glib. What Matt Strassler is missing is that, from the public’s perspective, dark matter really is a central part of the LHC’s justification.

Now, I’m not saying that the LHC’s main goal is to detect dark matter! Directly detecting dark matter is pretty low on the LHC’s list of priorities. Even if it detects a new particle with the right properties to be dark matter, it still wouldn’t be able to confirm that it really is dark matter without help from another experiment that actually observes some consequence of the new particle among the stars. I agree with Matt when he writes that the LHC’s priorities for the next run are

  1. studying the newly discovered Higgs particle in great detail, checking its properties very carefully against the predictions of the “Standard Model” (the equations that describe the known apparently-elementary particles and forces)  to see whether our current understanding of the Higgs field is complete and correct, and

  2. trying to find particles or other phenomena that might resolve the naturalness puzzle of the Standard Model, a puzzle which makes many particle physicists suspicious that we are missing an important part of the story, and

  3. seeking either dark matter particles or particles that may be shown someday to be “associated” with dark matter.

Here’s the thing, though:

From the public’s perspective, why do we need to study the properties of the Higgs? Because we think it might be different than the Standard Model predicts.

Why do we think it might be different than the Standard Model predicts? More generally, why do we expect the world to be different from the Standard Model at all? Well there are a few reasons, but they generally boil down to two things: the naturalness puzzle, and the fact that the Standard Model doesn’t have anything that could account for dark matter.

Naturalness is a powerful motivation, but it’s hard to sell to the general public. Does the universe appear fine-tuned? Then maybe it just is fine-tuned! Maybe someone fine-tuned it!

These arguments miss the real problem with fine-tuning, but they’re hard to correct in a short article. Getting the public worried about naturalness is tough, tough enough that I don’t think we can demand it of the average journalist, or accuse them of being lazy if they fail to do it.

That leaves dark matter. And for all that naturalness is philosophically murky, dark matter is remarkably clear. We don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of! That’s huge, and not just in a “gee-whiz-cool” way. It shows, directly and intuitively, that physics still has something it needs to solve, that we still have particles to find. Unless you are a fan of (increasingly dubious) modifications to gravity like MOND, dark matter is the strongest possible justification for machines like the LHC.

The LHC won’t confirm dark matter on its own. It might not directly detect it, that’s still quite up-in-the-air. And even if it finds deviations from the Standard Model, it’s not likely they’ll be directly caused by dark matter, at least not in a simple way.

But the reason that the press is describing the LHC’s mission in terms of dark matter isn’t just laziness. It’s because, from the public’s perspective, dark matter is the only vaguely plausible reason to spend billions of dollars searching for new particles, especially when we’ve already found the Higgs. We’re lucky it’s such a good reason.

All Is Dust

Joke stolen from some fellow PI postdocs.

The BICEP2 and Planck experiment teams have released a joint analysis of their data, discovering what many had already suspected: that the evidence for primordial gravitational waves found by BICEP2 can be fully explained by interstellar dust.

For those who haven’t been following the story, BICEP2 is a telescope in Antarctica. Last March, they told the press they had found evidence of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space-time caused by the exponential expansion of the universe shortly after the Big Bang. Soon after, though, doubts were raised. It appeared that the BICEP2 team hadn’t taken proper account of interstellar dust, and in particular had mis-used some data they scraped from a presentation by larger experiment Planck. After Planck released the correct version of their dust data, BICEP2’s predictions were even more evidently premature.

Now, the Planck team has exhaustively gone over their data and BICEP2’s, and done a full analysis. The result is a pretty thorough statement: everything BICEP2 observed can be explained by interstellar dust.

A few news outlets have been describing this as “ruling out inflation” or “ruling out gravitational waves”, both of which are misunderstandings. What Planck has ruled out are inflation (and gravitational waves caused by inflation) powerful enough to have been observed by BICEP2.

To an extent, this was something Planck had already predicted before BICEP2 made their announcement. BICEP2 announced a value for a parameter r, called the tensor-scalar ratio, of 0.2. This parameter r is a way to measure the strength of the gravitational waves (if you want to know what gravitational waves have to do with tensors, this post might help), and thus indirectly the strength of inflation in the early universe.

Trouble is, Planck had already released results arguing that r had to be below 0.11! So a lot of people were already rather skeptical.

With the new evidence, Planck’s bound is relaxed slightly. They now argue that r should be below 0.13, so BICEP2’s evidence was enough to introduce some fuzziness into their measurements when everything was analyzed together.

I’ve complained before about the bad aspects of BICEP2’s announcement, how releasing their data prematurely hurt the public’s trust in science and revealed the nasty side of competition for funding on massive projects. In this post, I’d like to talk a little about the positive side of the publicity around BICEP2.

Lots of theorists care about physics at very very high energies. The scale of string theory, or the Planck mass (no direct connection to the experiment, just the energy where one expects quantum gravity to be relevant), or the energy at which the fundamental forces might unify, are all much higher than any energy we can explore with a particle collider like the LHC. If you had gone out before BICEP2’s announcement and asked physicists whether we would ever see direct evidence for physics at these kinds of scales, they would have given you a resounding no. Maybe we could see indirect evidence, but any direct consequences would be essentially invisible.

All that changed with BICEP2. Their announcement of an r of 0.2 corresponds to very strong inflation, inflation of higher energy than the Planck mass!

Suddenly, there was hope that, even if we could never see such high-energy physics in a collider, we could see it out in the cosmos. This falls into a wider trend. Physicists have increasingly begun to look to the stars as the LHC continues to show nothing new. But the possibility that the cosmos could give us data that not only meets LHC energies, but surpasses them so dramatically, is something that very few people had realized.

The thing is, that hope is still alive and kicking. The new bound, restricting r to less than 0.13, still allows enormously powerful inflation. (If you’d like to work out the math yourself, equation (14) here relates the scale of inflation \Delta \phi to the Planck mass M_{\textrm{Pl}} and the parameter r.)

This isn’t just a “it hasn’t been ruled out yet” claim either. Cosmologists tell me that new experiments coming online in the next decade will have much more precision, and much better ability to take account of dust. These experiments should be sensitive to an r as low as 0.001!

With that kind of sensitivity, and the new mindset that BICEP2 introduced, we have a real chance of seeing evidence of Planck-scale physics within the next ten or twenty years. We just have to wait and see if the stars are right…