The suspense is killing me. In March physicists announced one of the most stunning discoveries in decades—the detection of gravitational waves produced just after the big bang. The finding prompted mass news coverage, and physicists in labs everywhere popped champagne corks. But soon significant doubts emerged. After much debate it became clear, even to the team at the BICEP2 experiment behind the original announcement, that the claims were premature. The experiment may have found primordial gravitational waves. But there is also a decent chance that the measurements were confounded by nearby dust in our galaxy.
Now, all we can do is wait for the dust to clear. Other experiments are hunting for gravitational waves and may find them soon, confirming BICEP2’s discovery. The most anticipated results are those from the Planck satellite, which may be able to observe the same signal BICEP2 did, if it exists. Planck will also reveal more about the Milky Way’s dust effects, which could either cast further doubt on the BICEP2 results or validate them, depending on how prevalent dust turns out to be in the area of the sky that BICEP2 observed. The Planck team members are planning to share their latest data this fall, probably in November.
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University in Tempe delves deep into the gravitational waves story in the October Scientific American. Krauss explains what the discovery means if it is true, including implications for the possibility of multiverses and even a way to unify the contradictory theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Read the article here (subscription required).