Update: You can watch a live-streaming video announcement of possible gravitational wave detection here. The feed should begin around 10:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, February 11, 2016.
Gravitational waves may have been detected for the first time, but we won't know for sure until February 11, 2016 — when scientists will either confirm or dispel the rumors, sources close to the matter tell Tech Insider.
Detection of gravitational waves would be unprecedented. Whoever finds them is also likely to pick up a Nobel prize, since the phenomenon would confirm one of the last pieces of Albert Einstein's famous 1915 theory of general relativity.
Confirming they exist would tell us we're still on the right track to understanding how the universe works. Failing to find them after all these years might suggest we need to revisit our best explanation for gravity or rethink our most sensitive experiments, or that we simply haven't looked long enough.
"Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, predicted by Einstein 100 years ago," Szabi Marka, a physicist at Columbia University, told Tech Insider. "They can be created during the birth and collision of black holes, and can reach us from distant galaxies."
Black holes are the densest, most gravitationally powerful objects in existence — so a rare yet violent collision of two should trigger a burst of gravitational waves that we could detect here on Earth.
Colliding neutron stars and huge exploding stars, called supernovas, are thought to generate detectable gravitational waves, too.
However, any sort of signal has eluded the planet's brightest minds and the most advanced experiments for decades.
Until now — maybe.
A 'major' event?
Columbia University in New York City is hosting a "major" event the morning of Thursday February 11, 2016, a source who is close to the matter, but asked not to be named, told Tech Insider.
Another source also confirmed the event but downplayed the significance of the event as anything "major."
Regardless, several physicists and astronomers with expertise in gravitational wave science are scheduled to attend.
The topic? The latest data from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a $1 billion experiment that has searched for signs of the phenomenon since 2002.
LIGO has two L-shaped detectors that are run and monitored by a collaboration of more than 900 researchers from 15 nations, and Marka is one of them.
Marka said that he and his colleagues have worked in the field for more than 15 years and that "these are very exciting and busy times for all of us."
He also said that Advanced LIGO, an upgrade that went online in September 2015, finished a period of hunting for gravitational waves on January 12, 2016. (That was one day after we saw the first alluring rumors of detection.)
But speaking on the phone with Tech Insider, Marka, along with his Columbia and LIGO physicist colleagues Imre Bartos and Zsuzsanna Marka, would neither confirm nor deny any information — either the Columbia event or related rumors. "We are prohibited" from doing so, the researchers said.
Thursday's LIGO-related event at Columbia wouldn't seem so unusual if it weren't for rumors of a LIGO-related study that's supposed to be published online the same day (February 11) by Nature — one of the foremost scientific journals in the world.
The Nature study rumor comes from a "Woohoo!" email that Cliff Burgess, a physicist at McMaster University and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (both in Canada), sent to his academic colleagues last week.
Burgess thinks a student of his probably shared a screenshot of the email to Twitter, which Adrian Cho at Science Magazine reported on. (Burgess confirmed with Tech Insider that the email definitely came from him.)
Here's what it said:
If Burgess' sources are correct, then LIGO has detected gravitational waves traveling at the speed of light — and that they came from two black holes, each about 30 times the mass of the sun, colliding deep in space.
"If this is true, then you have 90% odds that it will win the Nobel Prize in Physics this year," Burgess told Science. "It's off-the-scale huge."
But it's not over until it's over
When we told Burgess about the upcoming Columbia event, he said that was "very interesting" but seemed uncertain if the rumors he sent by email days before were still true.
"Whatever it is, it sounds like they are going to describe something," Burgess told Tech Insider. "It seems they've done a lot of checks and it's going to be important."
What could "important" mean? Anything from confirmation of gravitational wave detection to the fact that LIGO failed to find anything significant during its latest run — and might offer some corrections to our understanding of the physics of gravity and spacetime.
The rumors make it tempting to believe that LIGO made history and detected the gravitational waves of two colliding black holes, but a collaborator who asked not to be named said you can only hope this is true.
The reason: Leaders of the LIGO experiment sometimes inject fake gravitational wave data into the system to see if everyone is paying close enough attention.
Only after collaborators report the event does anyone reveal the ruse.
"You have no idea until then if the signal is astrophysical [from space] or fake," our source told us, noting that, in the past, LIGO collaborators had gone so far as to pop champagne bottles, write a study, and submit it to a journal before they found out the signal was actually just a test.
Tech Insider was also warned that a lot of the rumors circulating are patently wrong and "laughable," but our source would not elaborate further.
How to find a gravitational wave
Both LIGO instruments are L-shaped arrays of lasers and mirrors that should be able to detect gravitational waves.
Szabi Marka compared them to a pair of giant ears that can "hear" the spacetime ripples that result from black hole mergers, or some other catastrophic event in space.
The closer a collision is to Earth, the "louder" the signal should be.
LIGO's hearing is sensitive enough to detect mind-blowingly small disturbances of space, "much smaller than the size of the atoms the detector is built of," he said.
PhD Comics says LIGO's level of sensitivity is "like being able to tell that a stick 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters long has shrunk by 5mm."
Put another way, detecting a gravitational wave is like noticing the Milky Way — which is about 100,000 light-years wide — has stretched or shrunk by the width of a pencil eraser.
It would be no wonder why it has taken researchers so long to find gravitational waves; it's terribly difficult work. (Even a truck driving on a nearby road can disturb LIGO, despite the instruments having state-of-the-art vibration-dampening equipment.)
It would also be no wonder why scientists might try to stay tight-lipped about the discovery yet "suck at keeping secrets just like everyone else," as Jennifer Ouellette wrote at Gizmodo.
But at this point, there's only one way to know for sure if the latest rumors are true: Wait until Thursday.
LIGO spokesperson Gaby Gonzalez responded to Tech Insider's query but would not confirm or deny any of the rumors.
Tech Insider also reached out to Nature and Columbia University for comment but didn't hear back from them in time for publication. We'll update this post if and when we do.