Gravitational Wave Detection Rumors: We’ll just have to wait (UPDATE: Announced)

Have gravitational waves, an Einsteinian prediction based on general relativity, been detected? The physics rumor mill is propagating speculation about a weighty discovery, but what’s the big deal? (See update below)

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics will be hosting a press conference Monday, March 17, 2014, to announce a “major discovery.” What is the announcement? It could be anything.

First, let’s point out that we’ve seen public leaps to conclusions end badly before, as recently as 2012, when a principal investigator for the Mars Science Laboratory’s SAM instrument said “This data is gonna be one for the history books.” It turns out we may have overreacted (Universe Today). The speculation about tomorrow’s announcement appears to come from within the physics community, not the general public, but we should avoid getting ahead of ourselves.

Gravitational waves: have US scientists heard echoes of the big bang? (The Guardian):

Rumours have been rife in the physics community about an announcement due on Monday from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If there is evidence for gravitational waves, it would be a landmark discovery that would change the face of cosmology and particle physics.

Gravitational waves are the last untested prediction of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. They are minuscule ripples in the fabric of the universe that carry energy across space, somewhat similar to waves crossing an ocean. Convincing evidence of their discovery would almost certainly lead to a Nobel prize.

Shannon Hall of Universe today expanded on the ideas surrounding the speculation, explaining why its implications would be important.

Rumors Flying Nearly as Fast as Their Subject: Have Gravitational Waves Been Detected? (Universe Today):

Not only will detecting this slight polarization pattern in the CMB allow astronomers to uncover evidence of primordial gravitational waves but they will provide proof that immediately after the big bang the universe expanded exponentially — inflated — by at least a factor of 1025. While the theory of inflation is a pillar of big bang cosmology and helps explain key features of the observable universe today (i.e. why the universe is outstandingly uniform on such massive scales), many physicists don’t buy it. It remains a theoretical framework because we can’t explain what physical mechanism would have driven such a massive expansion, let alone stop it.

Inflation is the only mechanism with the ability to amplify gravitational waves, born from quantum fluctuations in gravity itself, into a detectable signal.

So to reiterate, why would this be important? Bill Nye summed it up a few years ago during The Amaz!ng Meeting:

Again, these rumors are professional speculation, so we’ll have to wait until tomorrow’s announcement, scheduled for 1200 EDT, to find out. Repeat: the discovery could be anything. It’s natural to get excited, but let’s not let speculation drive us to disappointment if they announce something that, while awesome, isn’t what was expected.


Update (17-Mar-2014)

The press conference announced the researcher’s conclusions.

Cosmic Bulletins: Two Major Discoveries Rock Science (TIME.com):

In a discovery physicists are calling “huge,” “extraordinary” and “spectacular,” a team of observers using a microwave-sensitive telescope at the South Pole has found the first direct evidence of gravitational waves—and the strongest proof of inflation to date, all in one shot.

The new results do have to be verified. Even though the BICEP2 team methodically checked and rechecked its work to rule out any mistakes, nobody, including Kovac and his colleagues, can be 100 percent certain until independent groups, using their own instruments, see the polarization signal too. That shouldn’t take long, given that cosmologists at Princeton, Berkeley, the University of Minnesota, the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the University of Chicago and more were already in the hunt. “Whether it’s correct or incorrect“ says Kamionkowski, who strongly favors the former, “will be known very quickly.”

Press announcements are all well and good, but the real meat in this story lies in the BICEP2 team’s research, which can be accessed via a prepublication copy submitted for review. Their results are available here and here.

The real story is opening ahead of us, as these results continue to be verified, replicated, and applied to existing questions, creating new ones about our universe’s expansion.

For more:


See also:

Visualization of Einstein-envisioned gravitational waves, provided by NASA.

Visualization of Einstein-envisioned gravitational waves, provided by NASA.

  7 comments for “Gravitational Wave Detection Rumors: We’ll just have to wait (UPDATE: Announced)

  1. Carrie
    March 17, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Not to be pedantic, but I’ve been listening to old podcasts about Melba Ketchum, and Dr. Todd Disotell mentioned that one of the red flags is that she released a press release before her data had been peer reviewed. Aren’t these people doing the same thing? What’s the difference between this press release, and her’s? (I’m not saying I believe her, I believe Dr. Disotell and most everyone else’s analysis which says her data’s crap.)

    • One Eyed Jack
      March 17, 2014 at 7:16 PM

      What is the difference between Melba Ketchum and scientists doing real science?

      Wow, that’s just so much wow.

    • March 17, 2014 at 7:30 PM

      I don’t think it’s pedantic. It’s a fair question. I think one major difference (among others) is that the BICEP2 facility in Antarctica houses a collaborative team that is open about their methods and results, openly allowing others to verify their data, and submitting their work for further review.

      Rather than making hyped promises, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics simply announced that they would be holding a press conference. The excitement spread from the researcher’s professional peers. I think you’ll find that with many of the infamous Crypto announcements, the inverse has been the case.

      • Carrie
        March 18, 2014 at 7:52 PM

        That’s a fair point, and helps put it into perspective for me. Thank you.

  2. Count Otto Black
    March 17, 2014 at 3:45 PM

    If this result is verified, it’s another truly astonishing demonstration of how amazing the scientific method really is. Seriously, the whole concept of humans being able to theoretically figure out what the Universe was doing 14 billion years ago between the time when it was almost no size at all, and a zillionth of a second later when it was the size of a boiled sweet, and then building a big telescope and proving that they’re right, is absolutely mind-boggling in the strictest sense of the word! Haven’t we come a long way since that very first hairy genius somewhere in Africa figured out that not only were sharp rocks more useful than blunt ones, but if you banged two blunt ones together you could make as many sharp ones as you wanted. Though I suppose that ultimately the Large Hadron Collider works on the same principle.

    From a skeptical point of view, a spin-off from this discovery, assuming it’s confirmed, is that the more confirmation Einstein’s theories about the nature of everything above the quantum level get, the less plausible it is that any civilization, no matter how advanced, could possibly build a device allowing them to travel faster than light. Every fact that bolsters Relativity in general, and light-speed as a universal speed limit in particular, is another nail in the coffin of flying saucers, because without some kind of hyper-drive, the practical difficulties of crossing interstellar space are always going to be huge, and it’s always going to take a really long time.

    The only way that classic UFOs could be coming here in the reported numbers is if an immense interstellar mother-ship was in close proximity to Earth but completely undetectable by any means, yet all the much smaller craft its occupants were using for the short trip to the surface of our planet were very detectable indeed, lacking even the stealth technology that prevents some aircraft built by mere humans from showing up on radar, and usually adorned with bright lights so that you can’t possibly miss seeing them. Which is just plain silly.

    The more the Einstein Paradigm is reinforced, the less plausible the old “they’re from another planet” theory of UFO origin (known in saucerous circles as the ETH – Extra-Terrestrial Hypothesis) becomes. It’s already unfashionable, and at least 75% of the way to being replaced by mystical, quasi-religious ideas pretty much identical to the concepts knocking around as far back as the 19th century of Higher Beings living on other planets (in those days, ridiculous ones like Venus or Jupiter) but being undetectable by Earth science because their greater spiritual development means they’re on a “higher vibrational plane” than we are, thus rendering them conveniently invisible. And even more conveniently contactable by attention-seeking individuals who claim to be mediums rather than by something as mundane (and testable by skeptics) as radio, which you’d think would work fairly well as a means of chatting with a hi-tech spacecraft.

    So, as science progresses, broadening our understanding of the Universe, ufology regresses to the Victorian séance-room and becomes increasingly indistinguishable from Spiritualism in fancy dress. The ultimate fate of ufology is probably to end up as a tiny diehard rump of eccentrics who have been forced to deny so many aspects of reality to keep their belief-system alive that they’re essentially the same as the Aetherius Society, and probably agree with George Adamski that Jesus, Buddha, and quite possibly George Adamski are alive and well and living on Venus, though obviously at a higher level of Cosmic Aeon Vibrations so space-probes can’t see them. It’s more than halfway there already.

    • RandyRandy
      March 17, 2014 at 11:21 PM

      Excellent. Well-stated and convincing. The more science studies and understands about space-time, distance, and actual space travel, the less these fantastic sightings hold up. The “inter-dimensional beings” hypothesis is the worst cop-out alibi of them all, sounding more and more desperate due to exposed hoaxes and a chronic scarcity of material evidence for UFO visitations. Funny how we had nearly zero UFO reports or contacts before 1950s science fiction movies came along to show people what UFOs/aliens were supposed to look like. Then – BOOM – every alien encounter or UFO report looks just like the movies they portray. People are far too suggestible when it comes to the unknown or mysterious. Clever lot, those aliens, to disguise themselves to match our sci fi/pop culture icons so well!

  3. One Eyed Jack
    March 17, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Science is amazing. It’s fascinating when a predicted results is proven out in experiment. It’s a testimony to the power of the scientific method.

    One of my favorite moments in college was in P. Chem. 16 pages of calculations ended with graphs that reproduced the electron clouds I had so far only seen in illustrations. It’s immensely satisfying and beautiful when something like that comes together.

    Those that don’t think science can be as beautiful as religion, don’t understand science.

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