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    Meet the Small Army Gearing Up to Hunt Gravitational Waves

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Here's a trippy thought: some enormous cosmic event takes place halfway across the universe, two neutron stars colliding or a black hole sucking, punching the fabric of space-time so hard that it sends out gravitational waves strong enough that they can eventually be felt on Earth. That would manifest as an irregularity or warping of time and space—a warping of reality, if you will.

    Sadly, we're talking about scales that are totally irrelevant to anything you could possible think of, unless you're in the business of trading photons across extremely tiny distances. (Which you're not.) The gravitational waves themselves, their existence, is more interesting than what they might actually do.

    As we speak, and over the next several years, a literal small army is gearing up across the planet to hunt for these waves. Their ranks are detailed in an overview in today's issue of Science by Carnegie researcher M.M. Kasliwal, who assures that we're on the brink of a "21st century gold rush" of gravitational wave detection.

    The general idea of interferometry/Wikimedia Commons

    The task is amazing and remarkably obscure, at least compared to the Higgs hunt and, increasingly, dark matter. A large part of the gravitational wave search relies on interferometers, a generic term referring to a device designed to detect anomalies (also the tool being used to detect whether or not the universe is a simulation).

    In this case, those anomalies are with the time it takes photons to travel over a certain very small distance. Such events would occur as the result of some gravitational disruption, and pinning down a precise electromagnetic signature of said disruption might enable researchers to nail a gravitational wave to the wall, so to speak.

    Like dark matter, there are a few ways to go about detecting gravitational waves. Another focuses on harmonic oscillations in an uncoupled system (if a pair of particles vibrating together in a particular harmonic frequency fall out of harmony/don't ask), while yet another watches pulsars, the galaxy's rotating rave-lights, for changes in timing.

    But there's even more. A huge problem with the whole task is that it's perhaps the most perfect needle in a haystack ever devised. The sky is lousy with gravitational events, of course, and a wave given off by even the most powerful event will be tiny compared everything else out there. As the Science paper notes, less than half of the galaxies relevant to our hunt are actually mapped. So, pretty much every other telescope mapping the sky needs to be in on the gravitational wave hunt.

    Though several detectors are currently at work, it would seem we're a number of years and even more false-positives away from a gravitational wave over the mantle. If you're feeling impatient, I'd suggest heading over to Einstein@home, a distributed computing project a la SETI@home that'll let you (or at least your CPU) join the hunt.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.