March 19, 2014 7:00 pm

Science Makes Lousy Sound Bites.

Shown: actual B-mode pattern observed with the BICEP2 telescope.

Gravitational waves from inflation generate a faint but distinctive twisting pattern in the polarization of the CMB, known as a “curl” or B-mode pattern. For the density fluctuations that generate most of the polarization of the CMB, this part of the primordial pattern is exactly zero. Shown here is the actual B-mode pattern observed with the BICEP2 telescope, with the line segments showing the polarization from different spots on the sky. The red and blue shading shows the degree of clockwise and anti-clockwise twisting of this B-mode pattern. From the BICEP2 2014 results release:

Science is hot again.

It’s more than hot… it’s popular.

On Monday, astronomers announced that they have discovered evidence of “primordial gravitational waves” that support the theory of an inflationary big bang at the dawn of our Universe.

Of course, if you tried to watch the live streaming announcement from Harvard, you most likely couldn’t – so many people tried that the main channel crashed. And, as word spread of other channels where you could watch the press conference, those channels quickly went down, too. The video of Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo, one of the scientists working on the BICEP2 experiment, surprising Stanford Professor Andrei Linde, one of the fathers of the cosmic inflation theory, with the results of the experiments, has gone viral, with over 2 million views in just a few days. (You can watch the video here.)

We are in an age where scientific discovery is becoming a mainstream news item, a popular culture event. And not just once in a blue moon. Curiosity landing on Mars. The discovery of the Higgs boson. Now, BICEP2.

Even FOX is getting in on the trend with COSMOS.

Rock star scientists are regular guests on the talk show circuit: Brian Greene. Michio Kaku. Lawrence Krause, and of course, our own show host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. When Bill Nye the Science Guy debated Ken Hamm about creation, millions watched live or download the event over the next few days. (It strikes me as I write this that all these guys are… guys. And while we’ve had a wide range of female scientists on StarTalk Radio, including Heidi Hammel, Heather Berlin, Judith Lean and Marion Nestle, clearly popular culture needs to be a little less male-centric.)

But with all this newfound popular attention comes a basic danger: the sizzle can drown out the science. When that happens, you get reputable news sources confusing meteors and asteroids, or claiming that Voyager has left the solar system when it has actually only entered interstellar space (there is a difference.) Or writing headlines that say that Steven Hawking says that there are no black holes.

It’s easy to get swept along in the rush, but the truth is, science makes for lousy sound bites. Reducing complex concepts to catchy phrases does everyone a disservice. (Just ask Peter Higgs what he thinks of the phrase, “The God Particle.”)

Take this week’s announcement that many have headlined as “proof of the Big Bang.” Brian Koberlein, writing on Universe Today, makes a great point in his article, “We’ve Discovered Inflation! Now What?”

“First off, let’s dispel a few rumors. This latest research is not the first evidence of gravitational waves. The first indirect evidence for gravitational waves was found in the orbital decay of a binary pulsar by Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, for which they were awarded the Nobel prize in 1993. This new work is also not the first discovery of polarization within the cosmic microwave background, or even the first observation of B-mode polarization. This new work is exciting because it finds evidence of a specific form of B-mode polarization due to primordial gravitational waves. The type of gravitational waves that would only be caused by inflation during the earliest moments of the Universe. It should also be noted that this new work hasn’t yet been peer reviewed.”

Or the Higgs boson. Its discovery was announced in 2012, but not confirmed until the next year. But did that stop the media from shouting from the rooftops? What do you think?

This latest discovery won’t be the last time science makes news. Our instruments are getting better. Our depth of understanding is growing faster than we could have imagined. The exploration of space is picking up speed, and it’s not just the US and the Russians doing the exploring anymore.

But as people who love science, it behooves us to remember that the answers are rarely simple. That scientific truth is nuanced. That words matter.

And that there’s so much excitement inherent in the unfolding of our universe that we don’t need to dress it up or dumb it down to make it palatable for the masses.

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up!

–Jeffrey Simons