Hey, remember when we told you about those rumours that physicists may have finally found gravitational waves? It’s been pretty quiet since then, but yesterday fresh rumours surfaced that yes, the discovery is real. And we could have an official announcement by 11 February.
Gravitational waves are faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime, first predicted by Albert Einstein as a consequence of his general theory of relativity. Move a large mass very suddenly — or have two massive objects (like black holes) suddenly collide, or a supernova explode — and you would create those ripples, much like tossing a stone in a still pond. The more massive the object, the more it will churn the surrounding spacetime, and the stronger the gravitational waves it should produce. We just haven’t had the technology to detect those waves directly — until now.
The recently upgraded LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) has been hunting for these signals, and last month, physicist Lawrence Krauss tweeted that he’d heard rumours that the collaboration had finally succeeded. Krauss took some heat for blabbing from a few of his colleagues, and LIGO team leaders were quick to advise patience while remaining noncommittal about the veracity of those rumours.
“My response to you is no more or less than the official one, which is the truth: ‘We are analysing 01 data and will share news when ready.’ I’d say that it is wisest to just be patient,”Alan Weinstein, who heads the LIGO group at Caltech, told Gizmodo at the time.
This time the blabbermouth is Clifford Burgess, a theoretical physicist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo. He sent an email to his entire department at McMaster, reporting that the LIGO team had found a telltale signal indicative of two large black holes merging. The signal is real, and it’s “spectacular.”
The statistical significance of the signal is supposedly very high, exceeding the “five-sigma” standard that physicists use to distinguish evidence strong enough to claim discovery. LIGO consists of two gargantuan optical instruments called interferometers, with which physicists look for the nearly infinitesimal stretching of space caused by a passing gravitational wave. According to Burgess’s email, both detectors spotted the black hole merger with the right time delay between them.
Naturally, a screen cap of that “Woohoo!” email found its way onto Twitter, igniting a fresh round of excitement and consternation.
So it seems physicists suck at keeping secrets just like everyone else. When asked why he sent an email to his entire fricking department, Burgess told Science that he wanted to share his excitement at the news with students in particular. “It’s one of those big events where the students may be a little bored by what they are doing in class but they may be excited by this,” he said.
It looks like we should know for sure by next week if the rumours are true. Or maybe LIGO is just trolling us, and will announce a null result, cackling with glee at having gotten everyone all riled up. My money’s on the former.
Image: R. Hurt – Caltech / JPL