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Date: 19/03/14

"5 Sigma At Point Two"

OK, much of what follows is way over my head, but this is here to demonstrate something slightly bigger - if you can have something bigger than the beginning of the Universe, that is.

There is, it seems, a cosmological theory called 'cosmic inflation'. This has nothing to do (you will no doubt be relieved to hear) with an increase in beer prices on Tau Ceti VI, but instead describes one set of explanations for how the Universe - or, as it may be, universes - expanded in the immediate aftermath of The Big Bang.

Here's an article on the Stanford Alumni website which gives the background to this story. It doesn't matter how much or how little of it you can take in, because that's not really what I want to point out in this piece.

One of the progenitors and developers of Cosmic Inflation theories, Andrei Linde, is a professor of physics at Stanford, as is his wife Renata Kallosh. Assistant Professor Chao-Lin Kuo is a member of the BICEP2 project (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization; do try to keep up). BICEP2's equipment picked up what appeared to be incontrovertible proof of the theory which Linde himself developed: eternal chaotic inflation. As befits the best in science, the project did not rush to publicise its discovery; instead, they checked, re-checked and checked the data again, finally establishing a confidence level of 5 sigma, meaning that the odds of getting this kind of result - even if the theory was wrong - are a mere one in three and a half million.

Assistant Professor Kuo went off with an accompanying camera operator to visit Professors Linde and Kallosh to give them the news before it was broken publicly. This is what happened:

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Now, I would like you to note a couple of things here: firstly the looks on the faces of the two venerable scientists when they hear Professor Kuo saying, "5 sigma at point two". "Discovery?", asks Professor Kallosh, immediately absorbing the significance of the news.

Secondly, please note the reaction of Professor Linde. Twice he asks Professor Kuo to confirm what he has said. This, I believe, was not simply being unable quite to believe that evidence had been found for his own theory; it was also the deep-rooted desire of one possessed of a truly scientific mind to be as sure as it is possible to be before accepting the evidence, even though he could have been forgiven in purely human terms had he embraced the evidence (and Professor Kuo) without a second thought.

When religionists of whatever stamp try to claim that only their revelation, only their scrap of parchment, only their invisible friend can bring moments of joy and revelation, by all means point them to that video.

Or, as one commenter put it, "Science works, bitches!".

(Tip of the wig to The Register)