Gravitational waves rumor sends ripples through the science community

Tantalizing rumors about gravitational waves have been spreading through the scientific community after Arizona State University cosmologist, Lawrence Krauss sparked a firestorm on Twitter.

Artistic depiction of gravitational waves. Image via Wiki Commons.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime which propagate as waves. They were predicted by Albert Einstein as part of his General Relativity Theory (GR). Basically, in GR, mass curves spacetime, and gravity is an effect of that curvature and therefore it must propagate through waves.

Various gravitational-wave detectors are currently under construction or are in operation but so far, no one has managed to detect them, despite an erroneous claim from the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 2014. Most notably, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) has been searching for these gravitational waves since 2002 with no major success. But now, that may change.

It all started (how else?) on Twitter. Reputable cosmologist Lawrence Krauss tweeted that LIGO may have found the elusive waves at last:

Normally, we wouldn’t care that much about something shared on Twitter but Lawrence Krauss is an award-winning physicist and a respected science communicator and advocate. He’s not a cook or a fraud – if anything, he’s one of the most reliable science communicators out there. But there are some issues with this.

First of all, a spokeswoman for the LIGO collaboration, Gabriela Gonzalez, said there is no announcement to be made.

“The LIGO instruments are still taking data today, and it takes us time to analyze, interpret and review results, so we don’t have any results to share yet,” said Gonzalez, professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University.

“We take pride in reviewing our results carefully before submitting them for publication — and for important results, we plan to ask for our papers to be peer-reviewed before we announce the results — that takes time too!”

Secondly, even if there is a major discovery – and make no mistake, gravitational waves would be a major discovery – it’s probably not Krauss’ place to announce it, no matter who his source is (because he’s not directly working at LIGO). I mean, LIGO is a carefully thought out experiment and it’s been carried out with maximum care, so it just doesn’t seem fair to spark spirits like that from the outside. Many others have taken to Twitter to express their frustration as well, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see if there is any foundation to this announcement or not. I wouldn’t count my gravitational chicken until something official is announced though.

The discovery of gravitational waves would further establish the theory of General Relativity, and help us bridge the gap between GR and quantum physics, who just can’t seem to get along.

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