Gravitational waves and more


Themes of the last fortnight have been gravitational waves, publication ethics and the new IPCC report.

Gravitational waves

These are different from what you find in the sea and a far cry from Mexican fun at World Cup football matches. Ripples left over from the seam-bustingly fast inflation of the universe just after the Big Bang were predicted by Einstein alongside his theory of general relativity in 1916, and have now been detected by a group working in the Antarctic on a project called the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization (BICEP2).

Their detection relied on a certain type of B-mode polarization that revealed photons now entering our atmosphere had been influenced by gravitational waves billions of years ago. If the readings are confirmed, they will all but prove the inflation theory of the origin of the universe. To get a full idea of the implications, you can listen to a 28-minute Guardian podcast dedicated to the discovery, or for a neat three-minute explanation, watch the excellent Nature video.

It has naturally led to excitement across the physics community. Several physicists are saying that proof of inflation theory backs up the many-universe theory – the idea that our universe could be one of many expanding next to each other like bubbles in a glass of champagne. Theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek points out that “if you can start one universe from a very small seed, then other universes could also grow from small seeds.”

But we shouldn’t assume the success of BICEP2 just yet. The research hasn’t been published in a peer reviewed journal or corroborated by another group – a point rightly emphasised by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in her Guardian commentary – but, as Adam Mann in Wired points out, other instruments such as the Planck space telescope may have already picked up corroborating B-modes evidence without realising how to test for it. Re-examining existing datasets may therefore confirm the findings within weeks, at which point we might find ourselves waving goodbye to inflation theory’s alternatives.

Publication ethics

If the gravitational waves discovery gets published, but is later found to be erroneous, the research paper may need to be retracted. The number of retractions has jumped in the last decade, but is this because there’s more poor research and misconduct in science? Possibly. The main reason is improvements in the retraction system and in the detection of plagiarism and false papers.

An excellent recent blog post in I, Science reported that plagiarism detection software like iThenticate was combating misconduct while the CrossMark system now tells a user in one click if they are reading a paper that has been retracted or subsequently updated, thereby making the retraction system far more robust. An article in Nature argues that if an honest mistake has occurred, then the retraction should not go down as a black mark on a researcher’s career record. If anything, they should be commended for their honesty.

And the latest European seminar from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has foregrounded the current state of publication ethics. Stephanie Harriman blogged through Biomed Central on the first COPE meeting to be held outside London and reported on the wide discrepancy of best ethical practice across European science. Conference speaker Debora Weber-Wulff also pointed out that only Norway and Denmark have a science ethics policy instituted in law. Germany, England Sweden, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands at least have a consistent national science ethics policy, while other European countries – that’s 19 nations – have convoluted policies or no policy at all.

Another speaker Professor Christopher Baethge, the Chief Scientific Editor of Deutsches Ärzteblatt (German Medical Journal), shared his experience that asking closed questions in the conflict of interest section led to more conflicts being declared. The unashamedly positive conclusions of the conference were that unethical research is decreasing, and declarations of conflicts of interest are increasing.

They clearly weren’t factoring in government-sponsored research! Sense About Science recently uncovered that the UK government has been delaying reports on food banks and immigration for political reasons. Ethical practice?

IPCC report

From a government holding back research to an intergovernmental panel releasing it; and lots of it. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is 2,600 pages long and based on 12,000 peer reviewed studies. It was presented in Yokohama, Japan and outlines the risks to nations and livelihoods that can be expected over the coming decades as a result of climate change. The report assures readers that no-one will go untouched by the impacts. US Secretary of State John Kerry responded saying “science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy,” and he called for the world to respond.

Simon Jenkins in the Guardian suggested the report takes us from alarmism to adaptation. The report recommends many adaptations including the construction of sea walls and more efficient irrigation for areas that are due to suffer drought. The Telegraph warned of British climate change refugees forced from their homes by flooding, and of fatalities from extreme heat waves. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett in the Independent attacked the three major political parties in the UK for their record on tackling climate change, while Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change Lord Deben called on the government to commit to the fourth carbon budget, which would see us halving emission of carbon dioxide compared to 1990 levels by the period 2023-2027.

Sally Tyldesley blogging through the Royal Society grasped the main thrust of the report by calling for increased awareness of the need to work out more adaptation options, although gently reminds her readers that the simplest way to ameliorate the impacts of climate change is to limit its rate and magnitude.

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