BICEP2 and soccer

I’m a Caltech physics graduate student who has been working on BICEP2/Keck Array since 2009. BICEP2 reported the first detection of B-mode polarization on degree angular scales, which John Preskill lists as one of his 10 biggest thrills. In my first post here on Quantum Frontiers, I will allegorically describe the current state of affairs of cosmic microwave background (CMB) cosmology. In a future post, I may share with you some of the insider history of how we arrived at this result and how it has felt to be a graduate student through it all.

BICEP2 is an experimental victory. The interpretation of the result is a work in progress. Emphasizing this distinction, I’ll present a soccer analogy in the spirit of the times. It’s as if there are goals on the board at halftime in a soccer game where neither team is expected to score any goals whatsoever. Although there’s no guarantee, the most likely interpretation of having goals on the board at halftime is that one of the two teams, namely inflationary gravitational waves, will win the game.

FIFA represents particle physics. It has been an international powerhouse for about a century. Fans around the globe are tuned into the World Cup. The discovery of the Higgs boson was the champion last time. Who will win this year?

Major League Soccer (MLS), on the other hand, represents CMB cosmology. It is a young league, only around since the 1990s. Its roots go back to the 1960s via the North American Soccer League, best remembered for the New York Cosmos, (or perhaps their New Jersey neighbors) who won an amazing championship in 1978. If you’re not from North America, you probably don’t pay much attention to MLS. You’ve heard of the LA Galaxy thanks to European superstar “David Planckham,” but you couldn’t name any other team. You may even be annoyed that they call it “soccer” instead of “football.” MLS is divided into Western and Eastern Conferences just as CMB cosmologists are concerned with large and small angular scales. Our story concerns an exhibition game between two Western Conference teams. The San Jose Earthquakes represent the ground-shaking possibility of inflationary gravitational waves. The LA Galaxy represent astronomical foregrounds. (Pick your favorite teams and adjust the analogy to taste.)

Let’s pretend that every time the Earthquakes and the Galaxy have ever played against each other over the years, the result has always been 0-0. Not just a draw. Scoreless. The matches become so boring year after year that they become a comedic punchline. Both sides’ defenses are too strong. To bring the fans back to the stands, the two teams agree to a publicity stunt. They’ll play a game at the South Pole! Crazy, right? The event is sponsored by BICEP, a brand of energy drink.*

Bookmakers take bets on the final score. Since neither team has ever scored against the other, the rules are simplified. You don’t have to bet on who will win or by how many goals. You only have to bet on the total score (detection significance in “sigma”). The odds for zero total score are high, so it’s the safe choice. Payoffs increase a little bit if you’re willing to bet against odds on a positive score, maybe one or two goals. You’ll win a small fortune if you correctly bet that three goals (“evidence”) are on the board by the end. A game ending with five goals or above (“discovery”) earns you a jackpot. Dizzle Mapo**, owner of the BICEP brand and an Earthquakes fan, decides to make it more interesting by putting a sizable chunk of her own money down on the long shot bet that at least five goals will be scored by the end. She doesn’t expect to get her money back. But why not go for it? She has the potential to win the largest sum in the history of sports gambling.

They play the game. It’s a slow one with lots of stoppage time. When the game is over, the final score is still a disappointing nil. Oh well, at least we all had a laugh watching the players stuff hand warmers in their shinguards.

One year later, Dizzle organizes for the two teams to return to South Pole in the BICEP2 friendly. She doesn’t want another stalemate, so as organizer decides to modify the net. Since she’s an Earthquakes fan, she widens only the Galaxy’s net. (The noise-equivalent temperature or NET is a measure of a CMB telescope’s sensitivity. BICEP2 looked only at the 150 GHz band in a field where the CMB was predicted to be brighter than the foregrounds.)

Dizzle discloses the widening of the net to the bookmakers. They will allow her to repeat her wager on the condition that they modify the scoreboard to display only the total score and not the individual team scores. She agrees. If there are any goals on the board, she’ll be pretty sure that they are goals for the Earthquakes. She won’t need to keep close track of which team scores which goals. After all, the Galaxy are the ones with the handicap. Few other bets come in. Most of the world is distracted by the World Cup. Besides, the common wisdom is that the game will end with zero goals, same as always. OK, maybe it’ll end with one or two goals. A week from now hardly anyone will remember the score anyway. Big whoop.

The BICEP2 players themselves are more excited about the game than the fans are. They’re playing to win. They kick in some goals. By minute twenty, the total score climbs to 5.

Wow! (It’s a discovery!) Dizzle screams so loudly that people can hear her through the thin walls of her luxury box. Word spreads across social media that something exciting is happening at some obscure soccer game at South Pole although it’s unclear what. Most of the mainstream media weren’t following it too closely until the rumors. Even the sports journalists were focused on the FIFA World Cup instead. It’s about ten minutes before halftime, and they’re all catching up. By the time they make any sense of the situation, that giant 5 is still on display.

In the next few minutes of playtime, events external to the game start to get weirder. First, an earthquake strikes the city of LA. For real. Second, reporters prepare the news item with a misleading headline, “Earthquakes score big win in BICEP2 soccer match at South Pole.” A more descriptive headline could have read, “Earthquakes likely, Galaxy possibly, scored big gambling win for Dizzle Mapo in BICEP2 soccer match at South Pole.” When asked for comment, Dizzle says, “I just won the biggest sports bet ever! Go Earthquakes!” What she means, of course, is, “I just won a bet that this game would have more than 5 goals scored in total. I won that bet, and my favorite team is likely winning by a strong margin. I’ll keep cheering for them through the second half. I may be able to figure out the exact score for each team if I ask what other spectators around the stadium saw. Next year, I’ll widen both nets and display both teams’ scores.” What the interviewers think she means, however, is, “I just won a bet that the Earthquakes would win big time. They did.” Journalists want to be accurate, but the story is unfamiliar and complicated. They are racing against the clock to break the story.

Soccer fans around the world pause a moment from the World Cup to read the piece. “Earthquakes did well in that BICEP2 game? Oh cool.” Even people who aren’t sports fans at all see the headline. “A soccer match at South Pole? Sounds fascinating!” Only people who read the entire news article learn about the wider net and the simplified scoreboard, and only the dedicated fans actively watching the game know that it’s still ongoing.

A TV camera is set up to broadcast the remainder of the game live. With one minute left in the first half, the referee blows the whistle. A player for the Galaxy is down. It’s unclear from the replay whether it was a foul or a flop. In any case the Galaxy are awarded a penalty kick. The shot goes in.

Now it’s halftime. In an impromptu ceremony, the bookmaker P. R. Letters presents Dizzle with an oversized check. Asked what she plans to do next, she exclaims, “I’m going to watch Spice World!”*** Expert sports commentators at the scene give an accurate halftime report. Five goals were scored, the majority of which were likely scored by the Earthquakes. At least one goal was scored by the Galaxy. Meanwhile, in the rest of the media, a new headline appears, even more misleading than the last one, “What the Dizzle? BICEP stock price drops as Earthquakes proven not to have shut out Galaxy.”

A few hooligans jeer from the sidelines that Dizzle was irresponsible for speaking to media before halftime, nay, before consulting everyone in the stadium for a detailed reconstruction of every play from start to finish. Ignore them. It’s a soccer game at the freakin’ South Pole. It’s the biggest win in sports gambling history. It’s news.  The public deserves to hear it. The confused media wouldn’t even be here in time for the jumbo check and halftime report if it weren’t for all the advance buzz. Is it so wrong that they take a breather from FIFA to learn about MSL and stick around for part two?

I can’t predict what will happen in the second half. Based on the balance of information about the unusual rules and the total score, the Earthquakes are likely in the lead and favored to win. Conceivably, the Galaxy can make a comeback. In fact – again conceivably – the Galaxy could already be in the lead. Maybe they trained much harder than anyone expected to offset their disadvantageously wide net. No matter the outcome, both teams will be good sports about it. Fans on both sides will demand a rematch. Dizzle has announced her plans to host BICEP3 because South Pole soccer is simply fun. There are many other brands of energy drink hoping to sponsor their own exhibition matches. It’s a competitive industry. You can also follow the Eastern Conference, where there’s an entirely different game being played. I’d pay to watch a game in outer space.

* BICEP = CAPITAL MUSCLE!!
** “Dizzle Mapo” refers to the Dark Sector Laboratory (DSL), which has housed the BICEP series of telescopes, and the Martin A. Pomerantz Observatory (MAPO), which currently houses Keck Array.
*** The five Keck Array receivers are named after the Spice Girls.

5 thoughts on “BICEP2 and soccer

  1. Seems you are not much of a soccer aficionado because you keep saying “points” instead of “goals”. It’s not scoring points, but scoring goals.

    • I was trying to avoid overuse of that word because of all the bad jokes about it. Well, there you go, I’ve edited it to the reader’s choice.

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