Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Science as casino.

The Times
November 05, 2005

500-1 that we find ripples in time and space? Put me down for £50
From Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent, in Hanover

WHEN Ladbrokes teamed up with New Scientist magazine in August last year to offer odds on five great breakthroughs being made by 2010, it looked like a typical silly-season stunt.

It is now expected to become a very expensive one. As soon as the book opened, physicists began to put their money where their theories were and backed themselves to find gravitational waves — ripples in space and time predicted by Albert Einstein but not yet proven to exist.

Alan Watson, of the University of Leeds, was astounded to see odds of 500-1 on a discovery that he considered a matter of when, not if, and promptly wagered £50.

So many other scientists did likewise that by lunchtime Professor Jim Hough, of the University of Glasgow, who leads a team seeking the waves, was allowed to stake only £25 at odds that had fallen to 100-1. When his colleague Sheila Rowan placed her bet in the early afternoon, the odds were down to 5-1, and when the book was closed they were 2-1.

Ladbrokes is bracing itself for payouts of more than £150,000 — £25,000 to Professor Watson alone — as researchers have switched on an experiment that promises to prove the existence of gravitational waves as early as next year.

If they succeed, the reward for Professor Hough could be even greater than the £2,500 he stands to win from the bookies: he would also become a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize for Physics, and a share of 10 million Swedish kronor (£730,000).

Such a discovery would open a new window on the Universe, allowing scientists to use gravitational waves to observe astronomical features that have never been seen directly before. The biggest prize would be a glimpse of the dawn of the Universe after the big bang, perhaps even of its first few seconds.

At present the first 300,000 years of time and space are opaque to conventional telescopes that use the electromagnetic spectrum but it will be possible to see much farther back with gravity wave observatories. "Up until now we have been seeing the Universe, but not hearing it," Bernard Schutz, a physicist from the University of Cardiff, said. "Now we will be able to hear it too, and listening to the Universe will allow us to understand it in a totally different way."

Four vast detectors of the Ligo (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) collaboration, three in the United States and one in Germany, are beginning a systematic 18-month hunt.

Yesterday the first two, in Hanford, Washington, started searching for gravitational waves produced by cataclysmic events such as supernova explosions and collisions between neutron stars and black holes.

On November 14 they will be joined by another Ligo facility in Livingston, Louisiana. The final piece in the jigsaw is the Anglo-German Geo600 experiment, laid out in a field of Brussels sprouts and sugar beet near Hanover, which will add its observations from early next year.

Gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity 90 years ago, are ripples that deform space and time, squeezing and expanding matter to an almost imperceptible degree as they pass. Professor Hough said: "The ripples cause strains in space, pulling things apart and pushing them back together."

However, the waves are extremely weak, so that even those generated by the most powerful events are difficult to pick up on Earth. Over the distance between Earth and Alpha Centuri — 4.3 light years — a gravity wave would warp space by as little as the thickness of a human hair.

The four huge detectors are built to pick up such tiny perturbations. Each is L-shaped, with two arms of equal length containing a powerful laser enclosed in a vacuum tube. A mirror is suspended at the end of each arm, reflecting the laser beam back towards a sensor.

When a gravity wave passes through, it will simultaneously cause one arm to shrink very slightly while the other lengthens — by a distance of just one ten-thousandth of the diameter of an atomic nucleus. One of the American detectors has 4km (2.5-mile) arms. The Hanford detector’s arms are 2km long and those of the Geo600 measure 600m.

The expectation is that during the search at least one gravity wave, perhaps generated by a black hole swallowing another, will reach Earth. Its signature should be picked up by all four detectors at once, confirming Einstein’s theory.

The Geo600 team is bullish. "The guys from Ladbrokes are pretty worried, and rightly so," Professor Hough said. "I’d hope that in the next year we will see gravitational waves from one or two events."

A spokesman for Ladbrokes said: "A reasonable amount of work goes into making odds like this, but we were clearly blinded by science on this one. It will be a tremendous feat if they can really prove this theory."


Odds on breakthroughs by 2010, offered by Ladbrokes in conjunction with New Scientist

Will ripples in space-time, predicted by Einstein but never directly observed, finally be found? Starting price: 500-1; closing price: 2-1 Worth a punt? Definitely. Most experts expect the Ligo experiments that began yesterday to prove their existence

Is Saturn’s largest moon, recently studied by the Huygens probe, home to intelligent life? Starting price: 10,000-1; closing price: 10,000-1 Worth a punt? Not on your life. Scientists are confident there is no intelligent life in the Solar System (except on Earth)

Will the elusive “God particle”, which theory suggests gives matter its mass but which has never observed, be detected? Starting price: 6-1; closing price: 2-1 Worth a punt? Yes. The Large Hadron Collider at the Cern laboratory will start experiments in 2007 and should find the Higgs — if it exists

Will a fusion power station be built that generates more energy than it consumes? Starting price: 100-1; closing price: 20-1 Worth a punt? No. Fusion has been “30 years away” for, well, at least 30 years. ITER, a £6bn experimental fusion reactor, will not even start operating until 2016

Can scientists prove where these high-energy particles that constantly bombard Earth come from? Starting price: 4-1; closing price: 3-1 Worth a punt? Perhaps. The Pierre Auger experiment in Argentina has been on the case since 2004, and stands a decent chance of success


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