By Adam Mann
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.”
At JPL, Bock had been working on specialized detectors (still under development at the time) that, if placed in a small telescope at the South Pole, could potentially detect the primordial B-modes. He approached the late Caltech physicist Andrew Lange with a proposal to search for this signal. Well known in the field, Lange helped Bock assemble the team of scientists, post docs, and grad students to achieve their goal.
“With his help, the whole project just took off,” said Bock, who became one of BICEP’s four principal investigators.
The theory of inflation, which posits that the universe went through a massive expansion very early in its history, is about 30 years old. Scientists have long known the event, if it had happened, would have left its mark on the cosmos in the form of characteristic twists in light arriving from 380,000 years after the Big Bang known as the cosmic microwave background (CMB). But the hunt for primordial B-modes was known for at least two decades in the field as a “high risk, high reward” experiment…