Tee time: at some point the universe blew up in size from subatomic to golf ball size. Photo: Getty
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Making ripples: another Big Bang theory bites the dust

In March, the team of astronomers working on the Bicep2 telescope announced that they had seen ripples caused by the universe’s inflation. 

The internet can be treacherous to scientists. Anyone can visit the New York Times site, for instance, and remind themselves of the 18 March front-page story “Space ripples reveal Big Bang’s smoking gun”. Now it turns out that, much to the researchers’ embarrassment, the gun misfired.

After its presentation to the world, the team behind what was hailed in various places as “the discovery of the century” submitted their research to a journal, which commissioned independent reviews of the work. The result? A big downgrade. Maybe analysing results using data lifted from a keynote presentation slide posted on the web wasn’t such a great idea.

Before we get into the messy details, here’s a quick recap. Our best theory about the history of the universe doesn’t work unless we shoehorn in a period of “inflation”. During this fraction of a second, the universe blew up in size (for reasons no one knows) from subatomic to golf ball size. This violent expansion would have caused ripples in space and time – known as gravitational waves – leaving an imprint on the cosmic microwave background, the radiation that exists everywhere in the universe.

In March, the team of astronomers working on the Bicep2 telescope announced that they had seen those ripples. The story made the front page of most leading newspapers and physics chat turned to discussing exactly who would be collecting the Nobel Prize. Not any more: those ripples may have been due to nothing but cosmic dust.

The universe is filled with the remnants of exploded stars and other debris. Dust clouds distort the patterns in cosmic radiation in much the same way as inflation’s gravitational waves would. So, if you want to be sure that what you have seen is due to inflation, and not dust, you need to know how much dust is out there.

But we don’t, not really. The Bicep team didn’t, which is why it turned to data captured by a competing team. The European Space Agency’s Planck telescope data hadn’t been published when Bicep’s astronomers were doing their analysis, but it had been presented at a conference. Planck researchers posted their presentation online. Bicep found it and used it to make its initial estimate of how much the gravitational wave signal was due to dust and how much could be attributed to inflation. Unfortunately, that is also why the team has now been forced to backpedal.

Unsurprisingly, the data from the slide wasn’t good enough to make it into a peer-reviewed publication. It is possible that later this year, when more data comes in from Planck and other telescopes, we’ll be in a better position to say whether we really have evidence for inflation theory. For now, we don’t know.

That leaves plenty of time for finger-pointing. Andrei Linde, one of the architects of inflation theory, told New Scientist he hadn’t liked the way the media had hailed the results as a smoking gun. He said the Bicep scientists “maybe . . . were a bit overoptimistic, and claiming the discovery of gravitational waves may have been premature” – but he’s hardly in a position to criticise.

In March, Linde told a New York Times reporter he was “still hyperventilating” days after the announcement. Embedded in the story is a film clip of him toasting the news with champagne. It was posted online by a Bicep team member, and has been viewed a somewhat embarrassing 2.8 million times.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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