A defence of the COBE results

31Aug10

In his preface to The Big Bang Never Happened (1st Vintage Books ed., 1992), Lerner ironically asserts that scientists and the media believed that the COBE results overshadowed “minor” discoveries such as DNA, antibiotics, relativity, and quantum physics. Among a wave of accusations against COBE, Learner writes that “the results didn’t even prove the cosmic background is indeed an echo of the Big Bang” and that the Big Bang predictions before the COBE results were announced were “flexible enough to fit nearly any results”. He then asks “why was there such a celebration of the COBE findings” and answers it with:

To most cosmologists… it has become an article of faith… after two years in which every new observation produced a new contradiction, the COBE results, which did not contradict the theory, were seized upon as a way to defend the faith.  

I know I said I wasn’t going to defend the Big Bang theory, but humour me. To present the cosmologists’s celebration of these results, I turn to Randall of xkcd fame:

Science: We finally figured out that you could separate fact from superstition by a completely radical method: observation. You can try things, measure them, and see how they work! Bitches.

The graph on the back of the shirt is data from the COBE mission, which looked at the background microwave glow of the universe and found that it fit perfectly with the idea that the universe used to be really hot everywhere. This strongly reinforced the Big Bang theory and was one of the most dramatic examples of an experiment agreeing with a theory in history — the data points fit perfectly, with error bars too small to draw on the graph. It’s one of the most triumphant scientific results in history.

Okay, I admit it: I own this t-shirt. I think it’s a beautiful result and Lerner’s accusations stung… and I just wanted to get that out there.

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