Much Ado About a Null Result

In today’s Nature there’s an article outlining the current upper limits on the existence of a stochastic cosmological background of gravitational waves. The basis of the analysis presented in the paper is a combination of data from two larger international collaborations, called VIRGO and LIGO. Cardiff University is a member of the latter, so I suppose I should be careful about what I say…

These experiments have achieved incredible sensitivity – they can measure distortions that are a tiny fraction of an atomic nucleus in scale – but because gravity is such a very weak force they still haven’t managed to find direct evidence of gravitational waves. The next generation of these laser interferometers – Advanced LIGO – should get within hailing distance of a detection but in the meantime we have to do with upper limits. Since the sensitivity of the instruments is so well calibrated, the lack of a signal can yield interesting information. The Nature paper is quite interesting in that it summarizes the constraints that can be placed in such a way on some models of the early Universe. Mostly, though, these are “exotic” models that have already been excluded by other means. If I’ve got my sums right the stochastic gravitational wave background expected to be produced within the standard “concordance” cosmology, in which gravitational wave modes are excited by cosmic inflation, is at least three orders of magnitude lower than current experimental sensitivity.

I can’t resist including the following excerpts from a press release, produced by the Media Relations Department at Caltech whose spin doctors have apparently been hard at work.

Pasadena, Calif.—An investigation by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration has significantly advanced our understanding the early evolution of the universe.

Analysis of data taken over a two-year period, from 2005 to 2007, has set the most stringent limits yet on the amount of gravitational waves that could have come from the Big Bang in the gravitational wave frequency band where LIGO can observe. In doing so, the gravitational-wave scientists have put new constraints on the details of how the universe looked in its earliest moments.

Much like it produced the cosmic microwave background, the Big Bang is believed to have created a flood of gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time—that still fill the universe and carry information about the universe as it was immediately after the Big Bang. These waves would be observed as the “stochastic background,” analogous to a superposition of many waves of different sizes and directions on the surface of a pond. The amplitude of this background is directly related to the parameters that govern the behavior of the universe during the first minute after the Big Bang.


“Since we have not observed the stochastic background, some of these early-universe models that predict a relatively large stochastic background have been ruled out,” says Vuk Mandic, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

“We now know a bit more about parameters that describe the evolution of the universe when it was less than one minute old,” Mandic adds. “We also know that if cosmic strings or superstrings exist, their properties must conform with the measurements we made—that is, their properties, such as string tension, are more constrained than before.”

This is interesting, he says, “because such strings could also be so-called fundamental strings, appearing in string-theory models. So our measurement also offers a way of probing string-theory models, which is very rare today.”

“This result was one of the long-lasting milestones that LIGO was designed to achieve,” Mandic says. Once it goes online in 2014, Advanced LIGO, which will utilize the infrastructure of the LIGO observatories and be 10 times more sensitive than the current instrument, will allow scientists to detect cataclysmic events such as black-hole and neutron-star collisions at 10-times-greater distances.

“Advanced LIGO will go a long way in probing early universe models, cosmic-string models, and other models of the stochastic background. We can think of the current result as a hint of what is to come,” he adds.

“With Advanced LIGO, a major upgrade to our instruments, we will be sensitive to sources of extragalactic gravitational waves in a volume of the universe 1,000 times larger than we can see at the present time. This will mean that our sensitivity to gravitational waves from the Big Bang will be improved by orders of magnitude,” says Jay Marx of the California Institute of Technology, LIGO’s executive director.

“Gravitational waves are the only way to directly probe the universe at the moment of its birth; they’re absolutely unique in that regard. We simply can’t get this information from any other type of astronomy. This is what makes this result in particular, and gravitational-wave astronomy in general, so exciting,” says David Reitze, a professor of physics at the University of Florida and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

If hyperbole is what you’re looking for, go no further. There’s nothing wrong with presenting even null results in a positive light but, I don’t think this paints a very balanced picture of the field. For examples, early Universe models involving cosmic strings were already severely constrained before these results, so we know that they don’t have a significant effect on the evolution of cosmic structure anyway.

Clearly the political intention was to flag the importance of Advanced LIGO, although even that will probably be unable to detect the cosmological gravitational-wave background.  Overstatements contained in press releases of this type usually prove counterproductive in the long run.

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5 Responses to “Much Ado About a Null Result”

  1. Cosmic strings may be there but not detectable via any means *other* than gravitational waves.
    Even if they are too light to do anything significant to cosmic structure (is 10% significant?) I would say it was worth a Nobel or two to see them.

    I agree that inflation itself is extremely unlikely to give signals visible at any GW detector (present or future). But reheating, phase transitions and other stuff happening after inflation may give interesting GW signals in the detector frequency band. Unless you know what the cosmological background really consists of, you can’t say if any given experiment is more or less likely to detect it. Reheating at least is known to have happened, given that inflation took place, though no-one yet knows how.

    I am at a conference in Cambridge next week and bringing a poster about more or less this exact subject…

    Maybe the physics that produces whatever GW are there will be visible to other experiments (eg cosmology / particle physics), maybe it won’t, either way there is potential to make discoveries.

    Since Advanced LIGO is funded there isn’t much critical politics attached to it – LISA and Einstein Telescope are another matter. I think the reason why LSC/VIRGO are excited is that the new bound beats BBN.

  2. Traditional cosmic strings are indeed severely constrained, but fundamental strings have not because in higher dimensions the reconnection probability can be less than unity. See, eg, X. Siemens, V. Mandic, and J. Creighton, Gravitational wave stochastic background from cosmic (super)strings, Phys. Rev. Lett. 98, 111101 (2007).

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Suddenly, nothing happened.

  4. telescoper Says:


    Unfortunately being “funded” is a situation that can change, as we know too well at Cardiff….


  5. [...] only publish really significant results rather than upper limits (unless they are to do with gravitational waves).  Nature articles are embargoed until publication, meaning that the collaboration can’t release [...]

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