Fake Gravitational Wave Signals?

Of course not! I don’t believe that. I was, like thousands of others, watching the press conference with excitement and amazement at the announcement of the most important scientific discovery of the last 100 years, and maybe of all of time. I never doubted any of the results and claims for a second. But after reading this article in New Scientist, I was disappointed. I shared it on Facebook, on my own page, but also on Astronomers where the post generated some discussion.

Some people dismiss New Scientist for being sensationalist and aiming for clicks rather than accuracy. Others are of the opinion that the LIGO collaboration failed to answer the questions raised by the skeptics, and failed to share the data and software used for the analysis in order to allow any other scientist outside the collaboration to reproduce the results, which is something they should have rightly done. I side with the latter.

It is unreasonable to dismiss the criticism brought forward by the Danish group, whose papers describing the problems they found in the analysis and the questions they had for the LIGO collaboration in regards to the analysis that led to the claims of detections were refereed and published. Whatever we may feel about the refereeing process, it does ensure some level of scrutiny of the work that we want to publish, and does ensure some level of verification of the claims and conclusions that are made and drawn from the work that is presented. If the analysis was clearly inadequate, there is no doubt that the scientific editors and referees would have pointed it out and requested further clarifications. Especially since it was clearly a controversial criticism about the methods used to claim the discovery of the century.

I haven’t read the LIGO papers, nor the Danish group’s papers. And I don’t, at this stage, plan to. It’s not at all my field, and I have tons of things to do relating to my own research projects. The New Scientist article was sent to me by our Department Head following a meeting we had last week for the coordination of missions in various stages of their study phase.

You may know that our next three L-class missions are JUICE very soon going to Jupiter’s icy moons, and then Athena in X-rays and LISA as the first space gravitational wave detector, both of which are planned to be launched in the early 2030s. So, there’s some time before they go up. But the discussion related to the status of LISA prompted our Department Head to send us the link: to the LISA science operations study lead because he’s working on LISA, and to me because my research is mostly on data and statistical analysis methods. I was at the meeting because I’m the science operations study lead for the M-class candidate gamma-ray burst mission Theseus, also with a planned launch date in the early 2030s.

I am strongly of the opinion that an analysis that is published should be perfectly reproducible, and the scientists publishing it should make all of their data and all of their methods and software available for others to check, and either find the same results, or figure out why they don’t. There’s no way we can make solid progress and move forward scientifically in the twenty first century without doing this. Science—all science—has to be open, transparent, and reproducible. For this, it has to be accessible, and this means sharing everything.

By the way, this is what a gravitational wave signal looks like. The superposed red and blue curves are from the two different detectors of LIGO: H stands for Hanford in Washington state (north western US), and L stands for Livingston in Louisiana (south eastern US).

gw_timeseries

The good thing is that as time moves on and we continue our research, it is surely practically always the case that observational results are either confirmed or not. For the detection of gravitational waves, it will for sure be the case—with 100% certainty—that detectors and analysis methods will continue to improve, that more events will be detected, and that each time this happens, the future and current gravitational wave collaborations like LIGO and VIRGO will be offered the opportunity to share their data and their analysis methods openly with all who are interested in replicating, verifying, scrutinizing their results, with nothing to hide, nothing to be secretive about. Let’s hope this materialises. In fact, let’s hope this materialises in all of fields of research.

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