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‘Nondiscovery’ creates media ripple

grav waves.jpg
Gravitational waves could be detected using interferometry Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

Big physics projects like the LHC that tackle some of the most fundamental questions in science are clearly a double-edged sword for journalists. On the one hand, it is relatively easy — and can be very enjoyable — to “sell” the sheer enormity of the research questions and the infrastructures involved in the projects themselves. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to pin down and explain the actual “news” when these things start to slowly churn out results.

One project that falls into this category is the search for gravitational waves that has been taking place over the past few years. Gravitational waves are vibrations of space-time predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. A number of interferometery experiments are currently trying to detect gravitational waves by measuring tiny changes in the separation of two masses that are expected to occur when the waves traverse a detector.

As gravitational waves have been able to propagate freely since the beginning of the Universe, the hope is that direct detection could yield significant information about the first 380, 000 years after the Big Bang when the Universe was opaque to electromagnetic radiation.

In this week’s edition of Nature, a cohort of researchers report the latest findings from two of the major players in this search for gravitational waves – The LIGO Scientific Collaboration located in the US and the Virgo Collaboration in France and Italy. The paper reports the latest data from these two experiments collected 2005 – 2007, and discusses the implication of these results for the standard picture of cosmology.

The bottom line with this new paper is that both collaborations are yet to find evidence for the existence of gravitational waves — although, obviously, these results provide important limits on the amplitude of the gravitational-wave background and the energy density of gravitational waves in the Universe. The wider significance to cosmology is that this data is starting to constrain models of how the early Universe evolved as well as placing limits on some of the more specific theories like the idea “cosmic superstrings”.

Coming across this paper, it seemed pretty obvious that these results will be of great importance to the gravitational wave community, but I was pleasantly surprised to see such an abstract area of science make it into one of the UK’s national papers. The Times ran an enthusiastic news analysis piece with the headline “Warp factor zero:how scientists followed Einstein back to the first minute of the Universe”.

The fact that a mainstream newspaper would choose to cover such a “nondiscovery” of this kind must have also made enjoyable reading for the press team at CERN. Following the media bonanza surrounding last September’s launch of the LHC there must have been more than a few fears of a potential backlash when the project inevitably takes a good few years before it starts churning out results.

Long live big physics!

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  1. Gravity propagation is extreme superluminal.

  2. Jim

    “The bottom line with this new paper is that both collaborations are yet to find evidence for the existence of gravitational waves”…
    Listen to what you’re saying, Man. NO GRAV WAVES YET DETECTED !!! Therefore it is impossible to make statements about limits as `scientific discoveries’, as LIGO has twice now, once last year about sphericity limits on neutron stars, and now this. No one is even sure if the instrument can ever detect grav waves, and every LIGO science run published for 10 yrs now has had a null result.
    Science writers beware: You are being manipulated into believing that scientific discoveries are being made, something the string community has crafted into an art form.
    Get Real.
    When Michelson-Morley failed to detect the aether of the 19th century, and published a null result that was different. They knew their instrument could reveal the aether. LIGO has no such knowledge, and is extrapolating from nothing. Shoddy science to say the least.

  3. ray smith

    To date, no equipment has ever been built to even look for gravity waves at v>c (much greater)….so much for double blind experimentation….we have been sold a bill of goods, the two referenced instruments could be retrofitted but, alas, everyone believes einstien set the speed limit for the universe and no one wants to experiment…god forbid the second coming of corpunicous. In the meantime we can all draw new graphs and dream of graphene gravity wave detector sheets…wanna see the effect of gravity waves?…look at a pond or lake etc on a calm evening and watch the reflection of the moon on the surface of the waves..I have been saying this since 1974 but it is hard to fathom for most because they were taught to experiment within the realm of beliefs and not to challange them. Challange all. There is no harm and at worst could only reinforce long held beliefs…else we regress.


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