Monday, September 22, 2014

Discoveries that weren’t

This morning’s news, as anticipated, is that the new Planck data renders the BICEP2 measurement of relic gravitational waves inconclusive. It might still be there, the signal, but at least judging by the presently existing data analysis one can’t really say whether it is or isn’t.

Discoveries that vanish into dust, or rather “background” as the technical term has it, are of course nothing new in physics. In 1984, for example, the top quark was “discovered” with a mass of about 40 GeV:

Physicists may have found 'top' quark
By Robert C. Cowen, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
MAY 9, 1984

Particle physicists appear to be poised for a breakthrough in their quest for the underlying structure of matter. Puzzling phenomena have appeared at energies where present theory predicted there was little left to uncover. This indicates that reseachers may have come across an unsuspected, and possibly rich, field in which to make new discoveries. Also, a team at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) at Geneva may have found the long-sought 'top' quark. Protons, neutrons, and related particles are believed to be made up of combinations of more basic entities called quarks.”
This signal turned out to be a statistical fluctuation. The top quark wasn’t really discovered until 1995 with a mass of about 175 GeV. Tommaso tells the story.

The Higgs too was already discovered in 1984, at the Crystal Ball Experiment at DESY with a mass of about 9 GeV. It even made it into the NY Times:
Published: August 2, 1984

A new subatomic particle whose properties apparently do not fit into any current theory has been discovered by an international team of 78 physicists at DESY, a research center near Hamburg, West Germany. The group has named the particle zeta […] As described yesterday to a conference at Stanford, the zeta particle has some, but not all, of the properties postulated for an important particle, called the Higgs particle, whose existence has yet to be confirmed.”
Also in 1984, Supersymmetry came and went in the UA1 experiment [ht JoAnne]:
“Experimental observation of events with large missing transverse energy accompanied by a jet or a photon (S) in p \bar p collisions at \sqrt{s} = 540 GeV
UA1 Collaboration

We report the observation of five events in which a missing transverse energy larger than 40 GeV is associated with a narrow hadronic jet and of two similar events with a neutral electromagnetic cluster (either one or more closely spaced photons). We cannot find an explanation for such events in terms of backgrounds or within the expectations of the Standard Model.”
And the year 1996 saw a quark substructure come and go. The New York Times reported:
Tiniest Nuclear Building Block May Not Be the Quark
Published: February 8, 1996

Scientists at Fermilab's huge particle accelerator 30 miles west of Chicago reported yesterday that the quark, long thought to be the simplest building block of nuclear matter, may turn out to contain still smaller building blocks and an internal structure.”
Then there is the ominous pentaquark that comes and goes, the anisotropic universe [ht Ben], the lefthanded universe [ht Ethan], and the infamous OPERA anomaly that was a loose cable - and these are only the best known ones. The BICEP2 story is remarkable primarily because the initial media reports, based on the collaboration’s own press releases, so vastly overstated the confidence of the results.

The evidence for relic gravitational waves is a discussion that will certainly be continued for at least a decade or so. My prediction is in the end, after loads of data analysis they will find the signal just where they expected it. And that is really the main difference between the BICEP announcement and the superluminal OPERA neutrinos: In the case of the gravitational waves everybody thought the signal should be there. In the case of the superluminal neutrinos everybody thought it should not be there.

The OPERA collaboration was heavily criticized for making such a big announcement out of a result that was most likely wrong, and one can debate whether or not they did the right thing. But at least they amply warned everybody that the result was likely wrong.


  1. You might also have added the discovery of the W-boson, with a mass of 1.3 GeV, at Brookhaven National Lab, which was announced in the New York Times on October 13, 1963.

  2. Hi Bee,

    you might be interested in the
    slides of a lecture I gave this summer at ICNFP, titled
    "Extraordinary claims: the 0.000029% solution". It's at


  3. My favorite was the front page announcements of Bicentinuum which was retracted as echoes in mica in the back pages. This shook my faith in many reports and some journals. I announced the results was wrong on student radio UWM and until an element greater than Z=120 my informal conclusions stand.

  4. Tommaso: Thanks for the slides, these are really interesting!

  5. David: I didn't know about this, thanks for telling us!

  6. Edgar: Yes, it's somewhat problematic if the announcement goes on the front page, but the retraction goes into the back matter. Happens a lot esp in the life science and social sciences.

  7. I'm not sure it makes sense to say evidence for primordial GW will be found "just where they expected it." Where do we expect it? Predictions for the amplitude of the tensor-to-scalar ratio r vary by several orders of magnitude depending on the model of inflation.

  8. Vacuum is exactly mirror-symmetric toward photons but not for matter.

    1) Skimmed de Laval vacuum supersonic expansion molecular beam for ~1 kelvin rotational temperature.
    2) A chirped-pulse Fourier transform microwave spectrometer gives high finesse rotational spectra (molecular dipole moment required).
    3) Oblate rotor chiral rigid cage molecule for spectral simplicity.
    4) Opposite shoes identically fit mirror-symmetric vacuum. Racemate then has one rotational spectrum. Observed two spectra are a pair of shoes divergently fitting a vacuum left foot.
    5) 5×10^(-14) difference/average mass/mass Equivalence Principle divergence is ~80 K energy/mass molecular rotational temperature divergence. Eötvös experiment threshold is microwave experiment huge. Do it.

    4-oxa-pentacyclo[^(2,6).0^(3,10).0^(5,9)]undecane, 4-oxa-D_3-trishomocubane
    Furan plus benzoquinone, 6 steps re Cookson's diketone with apical O replacing CH2.
    doi:10.2174/138527212804004508, 10.1070/RC2010v079n11ABEH004119

  9. Tomasso (or Bee).
    Somehow the link is mangled. I cannot access the talk(probably because of the long url)
    Would it be possible to put the correct link(using tinyurl or something)
    Bee: this history of wrong claims goes back to 30s.
    For eg Dayton-miller's claims of finding positive evidence for ether

    Another controversial claim in cosmology in last 10 years on which there was a press release is Sergei's claim of a measurement of speed of gravity using time-dependence of Shapiro delay. Of course the interpretation of this claim is controversial. see (Bee: I would love to hear what you think about this claim )

  10. It is time to question fundamental assumptions in theoretical physics.

    This does not mean seeking new epicycles for the old standard paradigm of particle physics/cosmology. It means considering entirely new and different paradigms for understanding the cosmos.

  11. Along with Sesh Nadathur, I also look forward to Bee's revelation of which model of inflation is "just what we have expected", (paraphrasing)

  12. Surely, Cold Fusion deserves at least an honorable mention?

    In my mind the ultimate discovery that wasn't.

  13. Let me add to the list the discovery of supersolid helium:

  14. Shatanu,

    The links you offered on Shapiro and Clifford Will I found rather simplistic as well the general idea disorienting as profound. I wonder if the title distinguished professor serves only to promote self published books (which is the case for the so called greatest poets and those for the modern idea of science for sciences sake, or art the public understands in clear stark reduction outside the standard say story norms expected of presented pictures.)

    Clifford seems to have the usual case for aether ideas from relativity's beginnings. Indeed, the measuring of such values as speed of light or of gravity (which Shapiro asks can be different in our legitimate speculations) merely tries to stand on that measurement of light speed from observations of Jupiter historically- that is not todays more refined original methods, especially if the quasars as black holes are not in a fixed aether, generally.
    Clifford seems to have the usual cultural biases or against the reputation of Einstein on one hand as in: Other warped ideas of Dr. Einstein and yet he has good formal questions as in: on trusting interpretations of data
    He forgets that Einstein was a master punner which while closer to the foundations of language concerns shows a depth of wit and understanding if we are aware of it in the context of our reflections.

    So he questions if black holes have hair thus the quantum meaning. Yet we could take it literally with more insight into the foundations and paradoxically say in more recent times "black hairs have holes" Then again I am bald as in Pe Sla the earth map of the sky by Sioux indians there the holy place they gather to is empty, representing a vanish Nova.

    Now we compare supposedly two different speeds of propagation and question if these can be measured within observation or experiment.
    (Should we expect,by the way jaybeegee, a model of inflation that replicates baby universes, replicating like rabbits their epi-cycles of voids we cannot get rid of to several levels of differentiation that do matter as the ghost of departed quantities after all, perhaps?)
    It is here that Uncle AI and Robert Oldershaw seem to me right on topic. Biceps if an error was no bold conclusion to support inflation after all. Would Uncle Al's experiment show it, if so then what has no one done it? No results would not disprove the concept on this fundamental level as physics stands today. Yet our assumptions may not stand at the most foundational level or they will and we need clear pictures of why.
    Order is important between quality and quantity, that is how many hairs per square centimeter determine the color. red is less dense than black is less dense than blond. But the dying of hair goes black, red to blond, chemically.
    Shapiro, on the other hand makes a trivial but focused point, as does Uncle AI, for in Leibniz's discernible of indicernibles (socks not right or left but shoes right or left and more than what Uncle Al said as Fibonacci like putting them in conceptually a left shoe and so on taking account the replication periods of rest. All the CPTR ideas of inversions beyond low dimensions.
    Now I apollogize for answering you before Sabine and Thomas but I have a feeling I with important work would not reply to older disoriented self conflicting theories one might just say are: Not wrong, but not even.

  15. I recall the 17 keV neutrino. And a talk entititled "If the 17 keV neutrino exists, the universe does not".

    The original experiment made an honest mistake, and immediately got corrected once they figured out what went wrong. The interesting thing was that before they error source was found, several other groups confirmed the find using different methods.

  16. I made an essay for new general assumptions on the nature of experiment and discoveries with the oil drop experiment for electrons in mind. But rather than adding more here you can find it on

  17. I feel strongly, a certainly really, that these two articles relate to the topic on my blog I just linked to.
    One concerns the "new state of matter by entanglement" of atoms in particular. and the
    other on the hot end of things concerning fusion in theory successful.

    These on the same proposed event interval. Does anyone expect this data will be refuted as almost discoveries?

    For the records I waited a day or so to post from notes but is was eerie that these two articles came out as if a higher synchronicity of design tying it all together. For in the pesla blogspot you will see the mechanism of this new state of matter and a little more to it as "entanglement gets less mysterious" now, is there a maximum of the number of atoms that can be so entangled in practice? or for all practical purposes?

    The theme for that post, backed up by a geometric grid method, explores the possibility we respond to or imagine the outcome of experiments. That in such like with cold fusion the results cannot be replicated but intermittently as if QM interpreted as some sort of esp...

    Does any one of us think of something in the world and it awakens? Is there something to that feeling?

    Can we imagine something more radical than what seems to be the clarity in nature as it is physicality? Or are we just entangled with it before it happens somehow? Best

  18. Ironically, supernova SN1987 demonstrated for 27 years that neutrinos indeed seem to move
    faster than photons! As one learns from Wikipedia article about SN1987, the neutrinos from SN1987 came in two groups and both neutrino bursts came earlier than the gamma ray burst suggesting light speed variations of order Delta c/c of order, 10^(-9): 5 orders smaller than claimed by Opera collaboration.

    TGD explanation - in the case that someone might be interested in TGD explanations - is that the the neutrinos bursts and photons arrived along different space-time sheets with slightly different arrival times. This would be a direct verification of the notion of many-sheeted space-time as the microscopic concept behind GRT space-time which would be only approximate notion.

  19. Matti,
    We can imagine many sheets and we can imagine them as interacting or as completely separate. Think of them as a mirror ball of square mirrors each with the question of how a 4D idea of tensors relate to nD possibly unlimited or potentially infinite space. Explode the mirror ball that each square points in all directions independently. Then pair them with the idea of parallel coherent light such that we have the ensemble as one cloud of entangled light or atoms. This next state of matter. Or deeper than that the independence that guarantees the possibility of such physical laws as say the physical and chemical interlocking of Borromean rings (which I see announced today) may self form like the DNA.
    If these are like brane sheets it is not given they are so rigidly connected in theory like a wrecking ball to ground or demolish other models or observations. Thus in some sort of arithmetical hierarchy of self similarity, your insight on n-adic Mersenne numbers comes to mind things can be induced to cohere without disturbing them by a deeper level of uncertainty. We imagine then that the difference of neutrino speed and photon speed there by illusion as well as a view of facts of physical law. The problem is not with the data but the theories or math as in too rigid a description or too chaotic one which as useful science we make clear our issues on what is the Lorentz that holds from a higher view like super-duper conductivity. Resonates do seem a limited possibility but beyond a certain contiguous range the grounding of them is limited and intermittent as part of a general system hot or cold in totality over some unified but relaxed event interval. That corresponds to our ideas of the range of standard particle intervals.

  20. Between
    plain honesty over slight inaccuracies to straight fraud there are a continuum
    of linear combinations of the extremes.
    The most interesting cases (in my opinion) are those where some/a lot of independent researchers chimed in, at least for some time, as e.g. with "Polywater". In the case of Bicep I guess that
    the authors feard to be overtaken by Plank soon. That produced a kind of psychosis : lets get this out as soon as possible, otherwise the Plank people will earn "our" Nobel price.

  21. It seems even that it is those false discoveries that constitute the main discovery and science news these days. Especially if one adds here officially “confirmed” but highly grotesque conclusions about dominating but supernatural dark mass and dark energy, or else purely abstract, "math-physical" discoveries (string theory, quantum gravity,...), with the accompanying joyful army of invisible entities, hidden dimensions and parallel universes, or such “truly great discoveries” as the Higgs boson or quantum computation (both either directly false or falsely interpreted), etc.

    In other words, we have ONLY false (often alas intentionally fabricated) discoveries even in modern "exact" science (let alone its more fancy divisions), which means that it has silently crossed the invisible but fundamentally important border between the previous situation of “we know/understand (almost) everything” to the old good “we know/understand (virtually) nothing”. Now, THIS is really a great discovery, with the omnipresent “experimental confirmation” by… just those false discoveries!

    Indeed, it’s not the often claimed saturation of a too complete system of knowledge, but rather the new, huge accumulation of “unsolvable”, apparently supernatural “mysteries” (in addition to the persisting old ones) and the sheer impossibility of finding any sensible problem solution (while fundamental and practically important problems are not missing, they only grow). Hence that never-ending series of false discoveries, being just another manifestation of the same impasse of knowledge, together with the above “strange discoveries”, "mathematical discoveries" and “highly doubtful discoveries”.

    Of course, the we-know-virtually-nothing situation could actually become beneficial for the new, highly needed science progress, but only in the case of essential change of the dominating attitude towards real novelties and paradigm change, from the current interested, egoistic ban and persecution to versatile support and promotion. One must recognize that really occurred transition from the omnipotent to impotent science - and reverse the tendency by the real change of science practice, towards extended content and organisation.

  22. Hi Sabine - speaking about discoveries that weren't, there was an item on Yahoo news this morning that a professor at University of North Carolina, Laura Mersini-Houghton, has solved the problem of quantum gravity and demonstrated that there is no such thing as black holes. What is your take on this?

  23. Jeffrey:

    I read the paper 2 weeks ago, I'm in touch with Laura, I'll let you know if I've come to conclusions. Best,



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