After gravity-wave rumors, it’s go time for LIGO

Image: LIGO optics
Optics technician Gary Traylor uses a light to inspect one of the laser-reflecting mirrors at the LIGO facility in Livingston, La. (Credit: Matt Heintze / Caltech / MIT / LIGO Lab)

The scientists behind the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory are getting ready to reveal their latest findings, amid a flurry of speculation over whether or not they’ve made the first-ever detection of waves rippling through spacetime.

Fred Raab, the head of the LIGO laboratory in Hanford, Wash., isn’t telling.

“As we have done for the past 15 years, we take data, analyze the data, write up the results for publication in scientific journals, and once the results are accepted for publication, we announce results broadly on the day of publication or shortly thereafter,” he told GeekWire in an email.

In a follow-up phone call, Raab noted that if the historical trend holds true, the results should be ready to submit for publication as early as this month.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

Science News

Startups bring new attitude to fusion quest

Image: Prototype fusion reactor
General Fusion is working on a prototype fusion reactor. (Credit: General Fusion)

The lab where a company called General Fusion is trying to spark an energy revolution looks like a cross between a hardware store and a mad scientist’s lair. Bins full of electrical gadgets are piled high against the walls. Capacitors recycled from a bygone experiment are stacked up like bottles in wine racks. Ten-foot-high contraptions bristle with tangled wires and shiny plumbing.

Michael Delage, General Fusion’s vice president for strategy and corporate development, makes sure nothing is turned on when he takes a visitor through the lab, which is tucked away in a bland industrial park near Vancouver. He’s worried about the voltage.

“If you get a broken wire or something like that, you get a very loud bang,” Delage explains.

His company and others are looking for a bang of a different sort: a smashing together of superhot hydrogen atoms that produces a net gain in energy. Nuclear fusion. It’s the same mass-to-energy reaction that’s behind the sun’s radiative power and the blast of a hydrogen bomb, but scaled down to a manageable level for power generation.

Get the full story on Science News.


LHC readings intrigue physicists: Stay tuned

Image: Diphoton excess
A computer graphic shows the spray of particles created by a proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector. The two green lines indicate the emission of two photons. Physicists say that could be part of an intriguing pattern, or merely a coincidence. (Thomas McCauley / CERN / CMS)

The Higgs boson is the biggest find of the century in particle physics, but for the past few weeks, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider have been considering whether there’s a mystery that’s even bigger. Or at least more massive.

The potential mystery has to do with a pattern of particle decay that results in the emission of two photons. The readings collected so far by the teams using the ATLAS and CMS detectors point to a slight “bump” in the expected pattern.

That may hint at the existence of a previously undetected particle with a mass of about 750 billion electron volts – six times heavier than the Higgs, French physicist Adam Falkowski (a.k.a. Jester) writes in his Resonaances blog.

Could it be a second Higgs boson? Evidence for gravitons or extra dimensions? Ever since the findings were made public three weeks ago, theories have been flying around like speeding muons, and with good reason. “If the diphoton excess is really a new particle, we are basically guaranteed to find other phenomena beyond the Standard Model,” Falkowski says.

However, the two-photon excess may be merely a coincidence – the sort of pattern that pops up in an early stage of data collection, but fades away when more readings are factored into the findings.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


There’s no evidence we live in a hologram … yet

Image: Holometer
A Fermilab scientist works on the laser beams at the heart of the Holometer experiment. The Holometer uses twin laser interferometers to look for evidence of quantum jitters. (Credit: Reidar Hahn / Fermilab)

Is our universe a two-dimensional hologram? It sounds like science fiction straight from “The Matrix,” but scientists are checking out the hypothesis for real. So far, the answer is no.

The experiments are being conducted at Fermilab in Illinois, using a gnarly-looking device known as the Holometer. The apparatus is designed to measure the smoothness of spacetime at lengths down to a billionth of a billionth of a meter. Put another way, that’s a thousand times smaller than the size of a proton.

The standard view is that the fabric of reality is continuous – but some theories propose that spacetime is pixelated, like a digital image. If that’s the case, there’s a built-in limit to the “resolution” of reality.

The Holometer uses a pair of high-power laser interferometers to look for tiny discontinuities in movements that last only a millionth of a second. Such discontinuities would provide evidence of holographic noise, or quantum jitters, in spacetime.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


LISA Pathfinder blazes trail to test relativity

Image: LISA Pathfinder liftoff
The LISA Pathfinder probe lifts off from French Guiana. (ESA photo)

The LISA Pathfinder probe is heading for a vantage point a million miles from Earth to help look for gravitational waves and add a missing piece to the evidence for general relativity.

The European Space Agency said an Italian-built Vega rocket sent the spacecraft into low Earth orbit from ESA’s spaceport on the South American coast, at Kourou in French Guiana, at 04:04 GMT today (8:04 p.m. PT Wednesday).

Over the next two weeks, LISA Pathfinder will go through a series of maneuvers to set a course for L1, a gravitational balance point between Earth and the sun. The spacecraft is due to reach L1 in mid-February and begin its scientific mission in March.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


LHC milestone re-ignites doomsday talk

Image: ALICE collision
This computer graphic shows one of the first collisions recorded between two lead ions at the Large Hadron Collider’s top energy. The energy in the center-of-mass system is approximately a quadrillion electron-volts. (Credit: CERN / ALICE Collaboration)

The Large Hadron Collider set another record for particle-smashing energy levels this week – which set off another round of hyped-up rumblings about the end of the world.

Before the LHC’s startup in 2008, the Internet was set abuzz with worries that high-energy collisions could create globe-gobbling black holes or cosmos-wrecking strangelets. Protests were mounted, lawsuits were filed, and physicists at Europe’s CERN particle physics center had to explain in depth why the nightmare scenarios were nothing more than nightmares. Once the collider went into operation, the lawsuits were dismissed and the hand-wringing settled down.

Now the world’s largest collider is operating at near its design limits, and this week, CERN reported that lead-ion collisions in the LHC’s ALICE detectorreached energies beyond a quadrillion electron-volts – a level also known as 1 peta-electron-volt, or 1 PeV.

“This energy is that of a bumblebee hitting us on the cheek on a summer day. But the energy is concentrated in a volume that is approximately 10 -27 (a billion-billion-billion) times smaller,” Jens Jørgen Gaardhøje, professor at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and head of the Danish research group within the ALICE experiment, said in a news release.

At first blush, a quadrillion electron-volts sounds like a huge ramp-up from 13 trillion to 14 trillion electron-volts, or 13 to 14 TeV, the traditionally quoted figures for the high end of the LHC’s collision energy. That’s what set off the doomsayers. In the weeks leading up to the ALICE collisions, there was a drumbeat of postings claiming that “CERN LIED” and warning that 1-PeV smashups would have catastrophic consequences.

Get the full story on GeekWire.


Carve a scientist into your Halloween pumpkin

Physicist pumpkins
Symmetry magazine’s pumpkin designs include Paul Dirac-ula, Mummy Noether, Albert Frank-Einstein, Werewolfgang Pauli and Scary Curie. (Photo for Symmetry by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab with Sandbox Studios)

Albert Frank-Einstein? Scary Curie? You’ve got to hand it to the folks at Symmetry magazine: Those science geeks really know how to throw a Halloween party. Or a Christmas party. Or a Valentine’s Day soiree. Their latest holiday tribute to scientific greats takes the form of pumpkin-carving patterns that will impress trick-or-treaters even if they don’t know a thing about Werewolfgang Pauli’s Exclusion Principle.

In addition to Einstein, Curie and Pauli, Symmetry provides templates to make your jack-o’-lanterns look like Paul Dirac-ula (with batty positrons flying in the background) or Mummy Noether (featuring the famous mathematician under wraps).

Get the full story from