For the last several weeks, there have been whispers of excitement surrounding possible new results from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Observatory (LIGO), a huge collaboration that has been searching space for gravitational waves since 2002.
Just last month, LIGO scientists reported the best limits yet on gravitational waves arising from massive black hole binary systems. Had the first evidence for this key prediction of general relativity finally been observed?
Well, this week the LIGO/VIRGO collaboration meeting took place in Southern California, and I'm sorry to report that the answer is no. But it's not because the physicists analyzing the data made mistakes.
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It turns out that the little blip in the signal picked up by the researchers was a red herring - a fake signal planted quite deliberately by the LIGO Internal Affairs division, to test the "data analysis pipeline" and ensure it's working as planned.
Yep - LIGO has its own little black box, to guard against the potential for human bias. See, everyone on the collaboration really, really wants to be the first to detect gravitational waves. Scientists are just as prone to wishful thinking, and seeing what they want or expect to see, as any other human on the planet. Schemes like this one help ensure that bias hasn't crept into the analysis process. So in that sense, the LIGO team passed with flying colors.