John Kovac Found the Holy Grail of Cosmology. And Then Didn't.

John Kovac Found the Holy Grail of Cosmology. And Then Didn't.

By Melissa Pandika

In this handout from NASA/ESA, an artist's concept illustrates a quasar, or feeding black hole. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) revealed millions of potential black holes in its survey of the sky in 2011. The WISE telescope, which ceased operation is February of 2011 after it ran out of coolant to keep its electronics cool, made the full sky image and was released to the public in March with hopes of astronomers making discoveries. (Photo by NASA/ESAvia Getty Images)


Ever wonder how scientists recover from major and expensive goofs?  

By Melissa Pandika

Why is this man smiling?

Over Skype, Harvard University astrophysicist John Kovac’s mood seems nothing short of chipper. He wears a constant, creased grin and chuckles softly to himself every now and then, even as he gazes into the distance to ponder a response. Flitting from one topic to the next, his voice maintains the same pleasant, breezy tone. You’d never guess he’s at the center of one of the more disappointing letdowns in physics.

Kovac led the research team that last year reported what many in the field consider the Holy Grail of cosmology — the first direct evidence of inflation theory, which says that the universe expanded extremely fast in the first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. If he had been right, science might have been able to determine how the whole shebang unfolded — we’re talking the origins of matter and life itself. But the so-called “smoking gun” evidence vanished in a cloud of dust — literally. Kovac had thought his proof came from ripples in space-time. A month later, satellite and other data showed that those ripples were due largely to something far less earth-shattering: interstellar dust.

We did what scientists have to do. We reported our measurements and called the interpretation as we saw it …

– John Kovac, Harvard University

It’s hardly the first time science has experienced an “oh, nevermind” moment. A much-ballyhooed 1998 paper that linked autism with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, scaring the bejeezus out of millions of parents, turned out to be a bust. Last year, Nature had to retract not one, but two papers that falsely reported a “breakthrough” in stem cell research. And not to rub it in, but let’s not forget that science told us for decades, relying on a careful analysis of telescopic images, that Pluto was a planet. Oops.

For his part, Kovac — strawberry blond, with a boyish, unlined face — has all the credentials you could ask for. As a kid, he built contraptions with names like “seismograph” and “Van de Graaff generator” and devoured The First Three Minutes, a book on the early origins of the universe. He graduated from Princeton and landed faculty positions at Caltech and Harvard. At 44, he’s already led a research team in a high-profile experiment with the world-renowned BICEP2 telescope. It’s based in Antarctica, no less.

Years of work, mostly with high-tech telescopes, went behind his apparent discovery of space-time ripples, or gravitational waves, which he thought would prove the theory of what gave the Big Bang its bang — that the universe had expanded far faster than anyone dreamed. When he made his discovery, he called a press conference that drew international attention. “We did what scientists have to do. We reported our measurements and called the interpretation as we saw it given the information we had at the time,” says Kovac.

Surprisingly, experts say mistakes like these rarely affect funding in the world of science; if they did, the thinking goes, it would discourage tireless and bold efforts to find everything from medical cures to far-flung galaxies. The National Science Foundation, which funded BICEP2 and budgeted $43.7 million for astronomy and astrophysics research in their 2014 fiscal year alone, says the recent findings won’t affect their decision to fund Kovac’s research. “Refining findings is the nature of science,” said Peter West, spokesperson for the Division of Polar Programs at NSF. Which may be a good thing: In the eight months since being debunked, Kovac says he’s now hunting for gravitational waves with some shiny new telescopes — BICEP3 and the Keck Array. He says he’s learned that he needs to take into account the interstellar dust as part of his measurements.

If he does, he’ll do no less than prove how right Albert Einstein was. In the early 20th century, Einstein helped spark the emergence of cosmology as a science when he proposed his theory of general relativity — that time and space are enmeshed in a continuum, and dense, moving objects like planets would send gravitational waves rippling through space-time. Advances in instrumentation have only accelerated cosmology over the past 20 years. Now we know that the universe has a finite size and that it’s not only expanding, but doing so at an ever-increasing rate. “You can ask questions that big and build something to answer that question,” Kovac says.

A joint analysis indicated that the signal that BICEP2 detected was due almost entirely to dust.

Critics of Kovac say the biggest lesson that emerged in the aftermath has been a simple reminder that being first isn’t also always best. Kovac’s team ideally wanted to analyze the BICEP2 data alongside the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite data to account for dust and anything else that could be mistaken for gravitational waves. But since Planck data wouldn’t be available for months, they analyzed BICEP2 data alone. “If you’re going to hype something like that, you better be sure you got it right,” says Charles Bennett, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University. 

But Kovac says he doesn’t feel that he was rushing out the findings, and the cosmology community has mostly been supportive of his work. He keeps his gaze trained skyward, believing the Holy Grail is still there. “I’m personally excited about whatever the answer is going to be,” he says.