Excited rumors began circulating on Twitter this morning that a major experiment designed to hunt for gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime first predicted by Albert Einstein—has observed them directly for the very first time. If confirmed, this would be one of the most significant physics discoveries of the last century.
Move a large mass very suddenly—or have two massive objects suddenly collide, or a supernova explode—and you would create ripples in space-time, 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. Einstein predicted their existence in his general theory of relativity back in 1915, but he thought it would never be possible to test that prediction.
LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) is one of several experiments designed to hunt for these elusive ripples, and with its latest upgrade to Advanced LIGO, completed last year, it has the best chance of doing so. In fact, it topped our list of physics stories to watch in 2016.
There have been excited rumors about a LIGO discovery before, most notably a mere week after the upgraded experiment began operations last fall. Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University, spilled the beans on Twitter, giving it a 10- to 15-percent chance of being true. “The official response is that we’re analyzing the data,” LIGO spokesperson Gabriela González (Louisiana State University) told Nature at the time.
Now it seems the rumors have resurfaced, and Krauss has been blabbing again:
We’re guessing that once again, the official response will be that they’re currently analyzing the data and everyone should just be patient, because you can’t rush this kind of tricky analysis. TL;DR: They will neither confirm nor deny the rumor.
UPDATE 3:18 PM: Alan Weinstein, who heads the LIGO group at Caltech, had this to say via email: “My response to you is no more or less than the official one, which is the truth: ‘We are analyzing 01 data and will share news when ready.’ I’d say that it is wisest to just be patient.”
That’s good advice in general when rumors of exciting breakthroughs begin circulating. But in this case, it’s quite possible that they are true. Loyola University physicist Robert McNees pointed out on Twitter that he’d only made one prediction for physics breakthroughs in 2016: that Advanced LIGO would directly detect gravitational waves. And he certainly wasn’t the only one to do so. He also had a few things to say about this brave new world we live in, where big physics news inevitably leaks out onto social media:
“I guess I’d say that rumors just reflect how excited we all get about the prospect of new discoveries. It’s natural to feel that way! But the last thing we want to do is jump the gun,” McNees told Gizmodo via Twitter DM. “The best way to support these scientists is to let them carry out their experiments and analysis the way they were meant to be done. Let them take the time to do things the right way! And as physicists, I think we need to greet the inevitable rumors with explanations of how science works and why it’s so important to be careful. Even if that means having to wait for exciting news.”
Sigh. Fine. We’ll be hanging onto the edge of our seats waiting for official confirmation one way or the other. If true—well, it’s a hell of a way to kick off 2016. And it would probably be a shoo-in for this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
Image: Visualization of gravity waves. Image Credit: Werner Benger / Wikimedia.