LIGO is just claiming the observation of one event, so far. And that occurred very soon after upgrading to more sensitive equipment.
Media coverage of LIGO is remarkably similar to that generated by a previous gravitational-wave announcement. In March 2014, a team overseeing the Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization observatory, or BICEP2, claimed to have detected gravitational waves produced by inflation, an extremely rapid--and hypothetical—cosmic growth spurt.
The lead BICEP2 researcher, John Kovac, assured The New York Times that “the chance that the results were a fluke was only one in 10 million.” I expressed doubts, saying I wanted “an explanation of why only inflation, and not other more conventional physical phenomena, can account for the gravity-wave findings.” Early in 2015, the BICEP2 researchers withdrew their claim, acknowledging that their observations had been distorted by dust in the Milky Way.
Now it is 5 months later. Has anything happened since? They are not telling us.
LIGO has cost American taxpayers about $1.1 billion. That is how much the National Science Foundation has spent on the project over the past 40 years, according to the Times.Chemists must be frustrated that esoteric physics gets all the money and publicity.
Chemist Ashutosh Jogalekar, who blogs as Curious Wavefunction, notes that while “the detection of gravitational waves will be a fitting testament to both experimental and theoretical science and the dedication of countless scientists over the years, in one sense it would be utterly unsurprising. That's because it is the logical prediction of a theory that has been around for a hundred years.”
Jogalekar adds that “some sources are already calling the putative finding one of the most important discoveries in physics of the last few decades. Let me not mince words here: if that is indeed the case, then physics is in bad shape.”
In an email to me, a technology scholar was more blunt: “So a 100 year old theory has been confirmed experimentally -- big whup. Did anyone think Einstein was wrong? There wasn't any controversy, was there? Was anyone credible claiming that spacetime isn't curved, or that black holes don't exist?
If confirmed by subsequent events, this result does plug a gap in our knowledge. We have found star-sized black holes, and giant million-star sized black holes at the nucleus of galaxies. But we had no evidence of medium-sized black holes, or of how they get so big. If the LIGO folks are right, then the black holes get big from collisions emitting detectable gravity waves.
My hunch is that they have not really nailed down the cause of the gravity wave, or told us what they know about other possible events. But we should soon see, as more data and analysis come in.