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25 May 2015

The cosmos is morphing

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 Seed.

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.

The imprint of this type of radiation on the oldest light in the universe—the cosmic microwave background (CMB)—is one prediction of inflation theory, which was first proposed in 1979. That theory states that the universe, originally chaotic quantum noise made of unstable particles and space-time turbulence, expanded at an unimaginable rate, creating these gravitational waves, smoothing out reality, and leaving the orderly cosmos we see today.

“Gravitational waves allow us to see all the way back to the start to the universe,” says Katherine Dooley, a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The early universe was too dense such that standard electromagnetic waves”—light—“would get scattered off of all the material, and could not travel to us today.” Observing these gravitational waves might confirm what we know about general relativity, or they might give us new insight into the nature of the universe, like whether the Big Seed was the beginning of all time, or if another universe preceded ours. The story of the universe’s origin is best told through this primordial rumble…if we can figure out how to detect it. A few gravitational wave observatories have been built—none has yet detected a wave—and more are planned over the next few decades. It’s an exciting time for astronomers, who may soon have real evidence on which to ground this new branch of one of the oldest scientific disciplines.

Practically every action makes gravitational waves—you can create them by waving your arms—but it takes serious astronomical doings to generate anything powerful enough to be detected. Earth orbiting the sun produces them, but they are low energy (which is good for the long-term stability of our solar system); two pulsars, the ultra-compact remnants of massive stars, locked in binary orbit produce far more substantial waves. As those bodies sweep around each other, they compress and expand the structure of space-time itself, creating a disturbance that travels out at the speed of light.

Gravitational waves from binaries like this are regular, like a pure note from a single string of an instrument. In principle we could trace such a signal back to its source, though, as with sound, triangulation is less precise than for light. Primordial radiation, on the other hand, comes from every place at once, since it was produced everywhere, when the universe was much smaller, and traveled in all directions from where it was created. The ultimate sources were tiny fluctuations in the quantum processes that was the cosmos right after the Big Seed; the gravitational ripples created by the fluctuations stretched out when the universe expanded rapidly into large, solar system-spanning waves.

In the pipe organ that is the gravitational-wave universe, inflation would be the longest, largest pipes, producing sounds so low-pitched they are felt rather than heard. Binary pulsars would lie toward the middle register, and violent catastrophes like supernovas or cosmic collisions would be the short, piccolo pipes. “Hearing” each type of wave requires equipment tuned to the appropriate register.

The entire article is here.