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Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

Posted March 26, 2014 6:06 AM by HUSH

Last week one of the most meaningful hypotheses in regards to relativity and astrophysics was confirmed by researchers at Harvard University. For the first time, "ripples" in space time have been directly quantified by an instrument intended for just that purpose. If you're not already shaking with nervous energy, I don't know how else to excite you.

Of course I joke; not about this discovery's importance, but about its reception. This truly is staggering news. I refrained from writing about it last week because it hadn't been officially announced by the time of my composition. Yet I was just another example of this discovery's minimal and underserved media presence. Most news stories recited a few sentences of dialogue, had a local university professor say something along the lines of "Einstein was right!," and then cut to footage of drunk people wearing green since it was St. Patrick's Day.

It's honestly hard to explain the perceived antipathy. In the Age of Information, access to the information before it's official seems to be more prized than the information itself. Perhaps a gravitational wave feature-length film is what we need. Or maybe we need a Lady Gaga song about it.

According to the researchers themselves, they had a small team of analysts--about 20, who mutually agreed that they wouldn't tell anyone until the group had decided too. In fact, the result--the hard discovery of primordial B-modes--has been kicking around amongst the team for over a year. They regularly changed passwords, created new email lists, and relied on hard documents to limit the chance that their discovery would be leaked, that rival scientists could hijack their findings, or that their conclusions could be maligned by the news. So, in this regards they have been quite successful.

But part of the indifference to the discovery could be how the non-physicists of the world interpreted the results. Little was done to thoroughly explain the magnitude of what this discovery means. Perhaps now is the time to shed some light on the subject.

Since 2006, these researchers have been minding the results of BICEP, which stands for background imaging of cosmic extragalactic polarization. This instrument was meant to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which is light energy that was released from the Big Bang and still exists in our universe, but is only identifiable with a radio telescope. When this light energy is measured the results are fairly uniform in any direction we observe, meaning that all of this light was at one point in very close existence. But when the age of the universe is calculated in a linear way, this light would be together at a point before where evidence suggests the universe began, which is before 13.7 billion years-give or take 40 million years or so, no big deal. Either we've been wrong about the age of the universe for a while, or the universe unexpectedly accelerated in expansion for a time between the Big Bang and present day.

The CMB exists as two types of polarization, E-modes and B-modes, and B-modes are produced by gravitational waves from cosmic inflation. Cosmic inflation is the hypothesis for this period where the universe expanded rapidly, before returning to a slower, more stable rate of growth. BICEP 2 (pictured right) began running its tests in 2010 and concluded in 2012. This instrument was able to detect temperature changes of particles to the 10 millionth of a degree. As the data was reviewed, the researchers began to try to debunk their own findings--evidence of B-modes existed from the beginning of BICEP 2--but \ the team thought it couldn't be this easy. After a year of internal deliberation, the team came forward.

Finding B-modes also tidies up two other physics problems. First, the flatness problem which questions the physical shape of our universe based on given parameters. (Turns out it's nearly flat.) Second would be the magnetic monopole problem, which concludes that if all matter was so dense during the universe's infancy, it would produce very stable particles called magnetic monopoles which would have only type of charge, positive or negative. They would also be so very abundant. Yet not a single monopole has ever been observed, and cosmic inflation would imply that they're out there, but so rare and far apart that they're insanely difficult to find.

In a sense, the major hole in the S.S. Relativity has been plugged with the discovery of B-modes, and in-turn gravitational waves. So for now, the Einstein's ship would remain afloat, but if it sprung a leak-information or composition-wise-it might get a lot more attention.

Resources

Harvard-Smithsonian - First Direct Evidence...

Wired - How the Biggest Science Secret...; That Signal From the...

Wikipedia - BICEP and Keck Array; Flatness problem; Magnetic monopole

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#1

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/26/2014 9:10 AM
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#2

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/26/2014 7:03 PM

Haven't gravitational waves not been indirectly by the change in period of binary systems?

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#16
In reply to #2

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

04/14/2014 4:25 PM

Yes, in several: the most famous of these being the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar, PSR B1913+16:

"

The pulsar and its neutron star companion both follow elliptical orbits around their common center of mass. The period of the orbital motion is 7.75 hours, and the two neutron stars are believed to be nearly equal in mass, about 1.4 solar masses. Radio emissions have been detected from only one of the two neutron stars.

The minimum separation at periastron is about 1.1 solar radii; the maximum separation at apastron is 4.8 solar radii. The orbit is inclined at about 45 degrees with respect to the plane of the sky. The orientation of periastron changes by about 4.2 degrees per year in direction of the orbital motion (relativistic precession of periastron). In January 1975, it was oriented so that periastron occurred perpendicular to the line of sight from Earth.

The orbit has decayed since the binary system was initially discovered, in precise agreement with the loss of energy due to gravitational waves predicted by Einstein's general theory of relativity. The ratio of observed to predicted rate of orbital decay to be 0.997±0.002. The total power of the gravitational radiation (waves) emitted by this system presently, is calculated to be 7.35 × 1024 watts. For comparison, this is 1.9% of the power radiated in light by our own Sun. (Another comparison is that our own Solar System radiates only about 5000 watts in gravitational waves, due to the much larger distances and orbit times, particularly between the Sun and Jupiter).


"

Other binaries also exhibit evidence for gravitational waves, notably PSR J0737-3039, discovered in 2003. From the Wiki:

"

PSR J0737-3039 has a periastron precession of 16.90° per year; unlike the Hulse-Taylor binary, both neutron stars are detected as pulsars, allowing precision timing of both members of the system. Due to this, the tight orbit, the fact that the system is almost edge-on, and the very low transverse velocity of the system as seen from Earth, J0737−3039 provides by far the best system for strong-field tests of general relativity known so far. Several distinct relativistic effects are observed, including orbital decay as in the Hulse-Taylor system. After observing the system for two and a half years, four independent tests of general relativity were possible, the most precise (the Shapiro delay) confirming the general relativity prediction within 0.05%. (nevertheless the periastron shift per orbit is only about 0.0013% of a circle and thus it is not a higher-order relativity test).

"

For more (and very recent) evidence of gravitational radiation from two stars in an extreme gravitational regime, see PSR J0348+0432.

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#18
In reply to #2

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

04/14/2014 4:54 PM

The figure for radiated power should read "... 7.35 × 1024 watts ..."

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#3

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/26/2014 11:43 PM

As an armchair theoretical physicist I can't help but wonder about this instrument built to quantify rippling space time.

b modes eh? Can they be warped and blended into worm holes and travel anywhere in an instant?

Not sure? Nothing a little funding can't needlessly tackle.

..we can't find a ripple where a plane went down, but we can observe space time?

sure we can..

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#17
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

04/14/2014 4:30 PM

"..we can't find a ripple where a plane went down, but we can observe space time?"

These scientists are trying to discover something, not conceal it by dragging their feet long enough to where those black boxes stop beeping (the acoustic beacons on black boxes chirp for about a month before the batteries die).

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#19
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

04/14/2014 11:00 PM

A day late but never a dollar short. It's obvious that we can get by without knowimg about everything. When the funds run out the message will be understood

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#4

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 9:16 AM

Here is a fairly understandable (to the layman) article explaining the CMB polarization and its connection to gravity waves.

http://cosmology.berkeley.edu/~yuki/CMBpol/CMBpol.htm

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#15
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

04/14/2014 3:57 PM

Nice intro. Thanks!

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#5

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 12:12 PM

Once again your system ate my comments. Arghhh!

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#8
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 12:44 PM

Something that might help for later, when you're ready to preview your comment, first select all of it and hit Ctrl-C, that way, if the system decides to be obstinate, you can simply hit back until you get back to the comment you were going to reply to, hit the reply button, then press Ctrl-V and hit the preview button, then the post button. That way the 'post writing' is fast enough for the finicky system.

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#6

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 12:14 PM

I think you meant apathy intead of antipathy. I'm not going to repeat what else was lost by your system.

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#7

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 12:43 PM

When I took a relativity course back in 1983, one of the special projects was to research the developing inflation theories and give a briefing to the class. I took it on.

Before Google & wikipedia, it was pretty hard to find anything in journals. But I did find some material derived from Alan Guth's work. "Higgs fields" were the latest component of the theory. Fortunately, the wikipedia link has a thorough update since I gave my briefing. :)

The inscrutability of this news is what makes it land with a thud. Yes, we get that the universe appears to be bigger than it could possibly have grown to be during its lifespan (as we think we know it) without exceeding the speed of light. We get that nothing is allowed to go faster than light.

Here, cosmologists are tying to figure out what happened 10^-38 seconds after the Big Bang. And BICEP2 seems to have validated the inflation theory. But it still strikes me as a bunch of magic.

So the universe "inflated" for far shorter than a nanosecond. Why? Who cares? There are other, smarter-sounding questions by the dozen that remain regarding the Big Bang & inflation.

This topic seems so far away from the physical world that it's hard to imagine any practical application. And I'm not one who says that often.

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#9
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/27/2014 4:48 PM

If I really needed to know, I would talk to Sheldon Cooper.

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#10

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/28/2014 7:46 AM

Mark Twain said it best: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

The point here is that the case for gravitational waves wasn't 'proved'. This was a data point, discovered by digging through a lot of noise. The conclusions drawn from this bit of data seem way out of proportion to it, and many years may pass before this data point is independently confirmed through other experiments. In the meantime, cosmologists still don't have a conclusive mechanism to explain what caused cosmic inflation.

And on a personal level, I am tired of how science and pseudo-science have been 'hyped' by the media. Real science news coverage has been replaced by 'People Magazine' style reporting, where celebrity and fame are more important than truth.

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#11
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Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/28/2014 11:41 AM

"And on a personal level, I am tired of how science and pseudo-science have been 'hyped' by the media. Real science news coverage has been replaced by 'People Magazine' style reporting, where celebrity and fame are more important than truth."

It seems that in this case the finding was not sensational enough to be hyped much, as the OP suggested. However, if the B-mode observations can be confirmed by other tests (say the Planck data, at a similar sigma level), the original announcement may be worth a Nobel prize later. It is after all the most direct evidence for the existence of gravitational waves so far. There seems to be no other credible explanation for the observed primordial B-mode polarization. It does not quite "prove" inflation though - there apparently are other possible causes for the primordial gravitational waves.

-J

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#12

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/28/2014 7:59 PM

YES WE CARE !!!

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#13

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/30/2014 1:08 PM

"It's honestly hard to explain the perceived antipathy." The answer is simple, most engineers and scientist can not communicate in laymen's terms. Some can not even relate to the layman. The news, when presented to the media, would need to be a headline and approach the layman could relate to in their own lives. The more amazing the headline, the more it would get covered. But note, it needs to be that which is 'amazing' to the layman, not amazing to the science or engineering world.

Example: When you are speaking to STEM audience and say "theory", they may infer "scientific theory", or "theory based on facts". The layman on the other hand will most likely infer "Oh it just theory, not proven, not fact". So if you want the non-scientific media to pick up more and spread the word to a wider non-scientific audience, you'll have to give a lot of thought to how this news affects the layman, and more importantly what they currently care about. That's my advice.

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#14

Re: Does No One Care About Gravitational Waves?

03/30/2014 6:48 PM

ap·a·thy

noun \ˈa-pə-thē\

: the feeling of not having much emotion or interest : an apathetic state

------------------------------------------------------------------------

an·tip·a·thyanˈtipəTHē/noun

a deep-seated feeling of dislike; aversion."his fundamental antipathy to capitalism

  1. synonyms:hostility, antagonism, animosity, aversion, animus, enmity, dislike,distaste, hatred, hate, abhorrence, loathing
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