My 10 biggest thrills


BICEP2 results for the ratio r of gravitational wave perturbations to density perturbations, and the density perturbation spectral tilt n.

Evidence for gravitational waves produced during cosmic inflation. BICEP2 results for the ratio r of gravitational wave perturbations to density perturbations, and the density perturbation spectral tilt n.

Like many physicists, I have been reflecting a lot the past few days about the BICEP2 results, trying to put them in context. Other bloggers have been telling you all about it (here, here, and here, for example); what can I possibly add?

The hoopla this week reminds me of other times I have been really excited about scientific advances. And I recall some wise advice I received from Sean Carroll: blog readers like lists.  So here are (in chronological order)…

My 10 biggest thrills (in science)

This is a very personal list — your results may vary. I’m not saying these are necessarily the most important discoveries of my lifetime (there are conspicuous omissions), just that, as best I can recall, these are the developments that really started my heart pounding at the time.

1) The J/Psi from below (1974)

I was a senior at Princeton during the November Revolution. I was too young to appreciate fully what it was all about — having just learned about the Weinberg-Salam model, I thought at first that the Z boson had been discovered. But by stalking the third floor of Jadwin I picked up the buzz. No, it was charm! The discovery of a very narrow charmonium resonance meant we were on the right track in two ways — charm itself confirmed ideas about the electroweak gauge theory, and the narrowness of the resonance fit in with the then recent idea of asymptotic freedom. Theory triumphant!

2) A magnetic monopole in Palo Alto (1982)

By 1982 I had been thinking about the magnetic monopoles in grand unified theories for a few years. We thought we understood why no monopoles seem to be around. Sure, monopoles would be copiously produced in the very early universe, but then cosmic inflation would blow them away, diluting their density to a hopelessly undetectable value. Then somebody saw one …. a magnetic monopole obediently passed through Blas Cabrera’s loop of superconducting wire, producing a sudden jump in the persistent current. On Valentine’s Day!

According to then current theory, the monopole mass was expected to be about 10^16 GeV (10 million billion times heavier than a proton). Had Nature really been so kind as the bless us with this spectacular message from an staggeringly high energy scale? It seemed too good to be true.

It was. Blas never detected another monopole. As far as I know he never understood what glitch had caused the aberrant signal in his device.

3) “They’re green!” High-temperature superconductivity (1987)

High-temperature superconductors were discovered in 1986 by Bednorz and Mueller, but I did not pay much attention until Paul Chu found one in early 1987 with a critical temperature of 77 K. Then for a while the critical temperature seemed to be creeping higher and higher on an almost daily basis, eventually topping 130K …. one wondered whether it might go up, up, up forever.

It didn’t. Today 138K still seems to be the record.

My most vivid memory is that David Politzer stormed into my office one day with a big grin. “They’re green!” he squealed. David did not mean that high-temperature superconductors would be good for the environment. He was passing on information he had just learned from Phil Anderson, who happened to be visiting Caltech: Chu’s samples were copper oxides.

4) “Now I have mine” Supernova 1987A (1987)

What was most remarkable and satisfying about the 1987 supernova in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was that the neutrinos released in a ten second burst during the stellar core collapse were detected here on earth, by gigantic water Cerenkov detectors that had been built to test grand unified theories by looking for proton decay! Not a truly fundamental discovery, but very cool nonetheless.

Soon after it happened some of us were loafing in the Lauritsen seminar room, relishing the good luck that had made the detection possible. Then Feynman piped up: “Tycho Brahe had his supernova, Kepler had his, … and now I have mine!” We were all silent for a few seconds, and then everyone burst out laughing, with Feynman laughing the hardest. It was funny because Feynman was making fun of his own gargantuan ego. Feynman knew a good gag, and I heard him use this line at a few other opportune times thereafter.

5) Science by press conference: Cold fusion (1989)

The New York Times was my source for the news that two chemists claimed to have produced nuclear fusion in heavy water using an electrochemical cell on a tabletop. I was interested enough to consult that day with our local nuclear experts Charlie Barnes, Bob McKeown, and Steve Koonin, none of whom believed it. Still, could it be true?

I decided to spend a quiet day in my office, trying to imagine ways to induce nuclear fusion by stuffing deuterium into a palladium electrode. I came up empty.

My interest dimmed when I heard that they had done a “control” experiment using ordinary water, had observed the same excess heat as with heavy water, and remained just as convinced as before that they were observing fusion. Later, Caltech chemist Nate Lewis gave a clear and convincing talk to the campus community debunking the original experiment.

6) “The face of God” COBE (1992)

I’m often too skeptical. When I first heard in the early 1980s about proposals to detect the anisotropy in the cosmic microwave background, I doubted it would be possible. The signal is so small! It will be blurred by reionization of the universe! What about the galaxy! What about the dust! Blah, blah, blah, …

The COBE DMR instrument showed it could be done, at least at large angular scales, and set the stage for the spectacular advances in observational cosmology we’ve witnessed over the past 20 years. George Smoot infamously declared that he had glimpsed “the face of God.” Overly dramatic, perhaps, but he was excited! And so was I.

7) “83 SNU” Gallex solar neutrinos (1992)

Until 1992 the only neutrinos from the sun ever detected were the relatively high energy neutrinos produced by nuclear reactions involving boron and beryllium — these account for just a tiny fraction of all neutrinos emitted. Fewer than expected were seen, a puzzle that could be resolved if neutrinos have mass and oscillate to another flavor before reaching earth. But it made me uncomfortable that the evidence for solar neutrino oscillations was based on the boron-beryllium side show, and might conceivably be explained just by tweaking the astrophysics of the sun’s core.

The Gallex experiment was the first to detect the lower energy pp neutrinos, the predominant type coming from the sun. The results seemed to confirm that we really did understand the sun and that solar neutrinos really oscillate. (More compelling evidence, from SNO, came later.) I stayed up late the night I heard about the Gallex result, and gave a talk the next day to our particle theory group explaining its significance. The talk title was “83 SNU” — that was the initially reported neutrino flux in Solar Neutrino Units, later revised downward somewhat.

8) Awestruck: Shor’s algorithm (1994)

I’ve written before about how Peter Shor’s discovery of an efficient quantum algorithm for factoring numbers changed my life. This came at a pivotal time for me, as the SSC had been cancelled six months earlier, and I was growing pessimistic about the future of particle physics. I realized that observational cosmology would have a bright future, but I sensed that theoretical cosmology would be dominated by data analysis, where I would have little comparative advantage. So I became a quantum informationist, and have not regretted it.

9) The Higgs boson at last (2012)

The discovery of the Higgs boson was exciting because we had been waiting soooo long for it to happen. Unable to stream the live feed of the announcement, I followed developments via Twitter. That was the first time I appreciated the potential value of Twitter for scientific communication, and soon after I started to tweet.

10) A lucky universe: BICEP2 (2014)

Many past experiences prepared me to appreciate the BICEP2 announcement this past Monday.

I first came to admire Alan Guth‘s distinctive clarity of thought in the fall of 1973 when he was the instructor for my classical mechanics course at Princeton (one of the best classes I ever took). I got to know him better in the summer of 1979 when I was a graduate student, and Alan invited me to visit Cornell because we were both interested in magnetic monopole production  in the very early universe. Months later Alan realized that cosmic inflation could explain the isotropy and flatness of the universe, as well as the dearth of magnetic monopoles. I recall his first seminar at Harvard explaining his discovery. Steve Weinberg had to leave before the seminar was over, and Alan called as Steve walked out, “I was hoping to hear your reaction.” Steve replied, “My reaction is applause.” We all felt that way.

I was at a wonderful workshop in Cambridge during the summer of 1982, where Alan and others made great progress in understanding the origin of primordial density perturbations produced from quantum fluctuations during inflation (Bardeen, Steinhardt, Turner, Starobinsky, and Hawking were also working on that problem, and they all reached a consensus by the end of the three-week workshop … meanwhile I was thinking about the cosmological implications of axions).

I also met Andrei Linde at that same workshop, my first encounter with his mischievous grin and deadpan wit. (There was a delegation of Russians, who split their time between Xeroxing papers and watching the World Cup on TV.) When Andrei visited Caltech in 1987, I took him to Disneyland, and he had even more fun than my two-year-old daughter.

During my first year at Caltech in 1984, Mark Wise and Larry Abbott told me about their calculations of the gravitational waves produced during inflation, which they used to derive a bound on the characteristic energy scale driving inflation, a few times 10^16 GeV. We mused about whether the signal might turn out to be detectable someday. Would Nature really be so kind as to place that mass scale below the Abbott-Wise bound, yet high enough (above 10^16 GeV) to be detectable? It seemed unlikely.

Last week I caught up with the rumors about the BICEP2 results by scanning my Twitter feed on my iPad, while still lying in bed during the early morning. I immediately leapt up and stumbled around the house in the dark, mumbling to myself over and over again, “Holy Shit! … Holy Shit! …” The dog cast a curious glance my way, then went back to sleep.

Like millions of others, I was frustrated Monday morning, trying to follow the live feed of the discovery announcement broadcast from the hopelessly overtaxed Center for Astrophysics website. I was able to join in the moment, though, by following on Twitter, and I indulged in a few breathless tweets of my own.

Many of his friends have been thinking a lot these past few days about Andrew Lange, who had been the leader of the BICEP team (current senior team members John Kovac and Chao-Lin Kuo were Caltech postdocs under Andrew in the mid-2000s). One day in September 2007 he sent me an unexpected email, with the subject heading “the bard of cosmology.” Having discovered on the Internet a poem I had written to introduce a seminar by Craig Hogan, Andrew wrote:


just came across this – I must have been out of town for the event.

l love it.

it will be posted prominently in our lab today (with “LISA” replaced by “BICEP”, and remain our rallying cry till we detect the B-mode.

have you set it to music yet?


I lifted a couplet from that poem for one of my tweets (while rumors were swirling prior to the official announcement):

We’ll finally know how the cosmos behaves
If we can detect gravitational waves.

Assuming the BICEP2 measurement r ~ 0.2 is really a detection of primordial gravitational waves, we have learned that the characteristic mass scale during inflation is an astonishingly high 2 X 10^16 GeV. Were it a factor of 2 smaller, the signal would have been far too small to detect in current experiments. This time, Nature really is on our side, eagerly revealing secrets about physics at a scale far, far beyond what we will every explore using particle accelerators. We feel lucky.

We physicists can never quite believe that the equations we scrawl on a notepad actually have something to do with the real universe. You would think we’d be used to that by now, but we’re not — when it happens we’re amazed. In my case, never more so than this time.

The BICEP2 paper, a historic document (if the result holds up), ends just the way it should:

“We dedicate this paper to the memory of Andrew Lange, whom we sorely miss.”

11 thoughts on “My 10 biggest thrills

  1. Yes, I had that in mind when I spoke of a conspicuous omission. I had started to believe in a positive Lambda before the type 1a supernova data. It was a better fit to what we already knew, and Weinberg had prepared me, so I wasn’t shocked. Maybe it’s just me, though.

  2. A most enjoyable account of BICEP2! I was under the impression that the PLANCK limit on r was < 0.11, but your plot seems to indicate that it could be almost 0.2! Any comments, as this is a crucial parameter??

    • I lifted the plot from the BICEP2 paper — Fig. 13. How compatible the BICEP2 and Planck results are depends on your assumptions. Quoting from Sean Carroll’s comment on his blog about the same plot: “Note that this plot crucially allows for “running” of the gravitational-wave signal — the size of the fluctuations changes in a more complicated way than as a power law in wavelength. If running weren’t included, the different constraints would seem more incompatible.”

  3. John, I was also thinking more about your comment above about your switch to quantum information theory. Have you written a full blog entry about that yet? I think many students don’t realize that eventually they are likely to switch (for one reason or another — or several reasons) to a topic that is different from their PhD, postdoctoral, and other “early” research; and I think that would be a very valuable blog entry to write if you haven’t done so already. As far as I can tell, almost all of us need to keep adapting, and this isn’t necessarily obvious to students. So “telling our adaptation stories”, so to speak, seems very valuable.

  4. Pingback: My 10 biggest thrills | Φυσ&i...

  5. The accelerating Universe Theory was not so shocking to me, but only comforting as I could recall reading one of the verses in the Quran during my childhood in which God had mentioned that “With might (power) have I created the Universe and with might am I steadily expanding it.”
    Being a theist, I find myself pretty comfortable to believe in God while learning Science at the same time. Science is really great and always gives great results!!

  6. Pingback: Inflation on the back of an envelope | Quantum Frontiers

  7. Pingback: BICEP2 and soccer | Quantum Frontiers

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