Some heavy facts about gravity

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I’m not generally the type of writer who makes listicles, but I’m producing a few for Symmetry Magazine this year. The first covers the OG of fundamental forces: gravity!

Six weighty facts about gravity

Perplexed by gravity? Don’t let it get you down

For Symmetry Magazine:

Gravity: we barely ever think about it, at least until we slip on ice or stumble on the stairs. To many ancient thinkers, gravity wasn’t even a force—it was just the natural tendency of objects to sink toward the center of Earth, while planets were subject to other, unrelated laws.

Of course, we now know that gravity does far more than make things fall down. It governs the motion of planets around the Sun, holds galaxies together and determines the structure of the universe itself. We also recognize that gravity is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, along with electromagnetism, the weak force and the strong force.

The modern theory of gravity—Einstein’s general theory of relativity—is one of the most successful theories we have. At the same time, we still don’t know everything about gravity, including the exact way it fits in with the other fundamental forces. But here are six weighty facts we do know about gravity. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

BICEP3: Revenge of the telescope

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Dusting for the fingerprint of inflation with BICEP3

A new experiment at the South Pole picks up where BICEP2 left off

For Symmetry Magazine:

When researchers with the BICEP2 experiment announced they had seen the first strong evidence for cosmic inflation, it was front-page news around the world. Inflation is the extremely rapid expansion of space-time during its first split second of existence, proposed to explain a number of puzzling properties of the universe, making the BICEP2 results a really big deal. Over the following months, though, the excitement evaporated: After combining their data with other experiments, the BICEP2 team showed that most or all of the signal attributed to inflation was likely produced by galactic dust inside the Milky Way.

But traces of inflation could still be hiding in the data, and that’s why scientists haven’t given up yet. BICEP3, the upgraded version of BICEP2, began collecting data yesterday. The first observations using the fully updated equipment will run through November. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine]

A discovery that made a thousand scientists burst into cheers and tears

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Part of one of the mirror assemblies that make up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) at Livingston, Louisiana. I visited the site in 2012 during the upgrade of the lab to Advanced LIGO. [Credit: moi]

Part of one of the mirror assemblies that make up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) at Livingston, Louisiana. I visited the site in 2012 during the upgrade of the lab to Advanced LIGO. [Credit: moi]

It’s not every day that we get to usher in an entirely new branch of astronomy. Yesterday, members of the LIGO collaboration announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves, which are a way to study the universe we can’t see using light. Much of my PhD research involved gravitational physics, including a bit of gravitational wave work. I even visited LIGO twice because … well, why not? For that reason, yesterday’s announcement brought tears to my eyes, and I’m not the only one. This is the start of a new in the study of the universe. And here’s what I had to say about it for The Atlantic:

The Dawn of a New Era in Science

By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe

For The Atlantic:

More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.

This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place. [Read the rest at The Atlantic]

Be very very quiet, we’re hunting gravitational waves

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Gravitational waves and where to find them

Advanced LIGO has just begun its search for gravitational waves

For Symmetry Magazine:

For thousands of years, astronomy was the province of visible light, that narrow band of colors the human eye can see.

In the 20th century, astronomers pushed into other kinds of light, from radio waves to infrared light to gamma rays. Researchers built neutrino detectors and cosmic ray observatories to study the universe using particles instead. Most recently, another branch of lightless astronomy has been making strides: gravitational wave astronomy.

It’s easy to make gravitational waves: Just flap your arms. Earth’s orbit produces more powerful gravitational waves, but even these are too small to have a measurable effect. This is a good thing: Gravitational waves carry energy, and losing too much energy would cause Earth to spiral into the sun. [Read the rest at Symmetry Magazine…]

 

Listening to the sounds of the cosmos

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Last year, I went to a conference in Florida to hear — and in some cases meet — some of the leading thinkers in the study of gravitational waves. These waves are disturbances in the structure of spacetime itself, and could provide information about some exciting phenomena, if we can learn to detect them. The universe as heard in gravitational waves includes colliding black holes, white dwarfs locked in mutual orbits, exploding stars, and possibly chaotic disturbances from the very first instants after the Big Bang. This story marks one of my first big magazine articles, which I wrote for Smithsonian Air & Space magazine.

The Universe is Ringing

And astronomers are building observatories to listen to it

For Smithsonian Air & Space:

Think of it as a low hum, a rumble too deep to notice without special equipment. It permeates everything—from the emptiest spot in space to the densest cores of planets. Unlike sound, which requires air or some other material to carry it, this hum travels on the structure of space-time itself. It is the tremble caused by gravitational radiation, left over from the first moments after the Big Bang.

Gravitational waves were predicted in Albert Einstein’s 1916 theory of general relativity. Einstein postulated that the gravity of massive objects would bend or warp space-time and that their movements would send ripples through it, just as a ship moving through water creates a wake. Later observations supported his conception. [Read the rest at Air & Space….]

If we could only build one huge observatory….

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Q: Suppose we can only build one big telescope. Should we look for life among the stars or the origins of the universe?

I participated in an experts’ roundtable for Aeon Magazine, in which we were asked (more or less facetiously) what single project we would support to settle either questions about the very early universe or the existence of life elsewhere in the cosmos. Of course my real answer is that we should support all the science, because discovery isn’t about looking for one thing, but seeing what new things we can find. Throwing all our money at one big project might accomplish something, but it’s a bad way to do science. But anyway, taking the question for what it is — a fun exercise in wishing — here’s my answer, along with thoughts from Ross Andersen and Caleb Scharf.

The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

The BICEP2 telescope (foreground) with the South Pole Telescope (SPT) behind. [Credit: Steffen Richter (Harvard University)]

Today was an exciting and stimulating day: the BICEP2 collaboration announced the first measurement of the cosmic microwave background that might tell us whether or not inflation happened. Inflation is the hypothetical rapid expansion of the Universe during its first instants, which explains a lot about why the cosmos appears the way it does. However, data on inflation itself, as opposed to its side-effects, are hard to come by. This new observation could help resolve that…assuming we can figure out why some of its aspects don’t agree with prior observations.

While they do not constitute a direct detection of either primordial gravitational waves (the distortions causing the light polarization) or inflation, the BICEP2 results could provide the best evidence for both that could not be easily explained away by other theories. This observation cannot be the end of the story, however. The measurement of polarization is significantly larger that what is seen in the results of prior observations in a way that cannot be immediately dismissed. Whether the problems are with the interpretation and analysis of the BICEP2 data, or if something more subtle is at work, remains to be seen. [Read more….]

New data offer a peek into the Universe’s first instants