One of my favorite phrases from Calvin and Hobbes is the line “scientific progress goes ‘BOINK’.” Today, we have documentation of this actually occurring, although “BOINK” is not the exact word used in the paper, which appears in Physical Review Letters and is led by Maxim Goryachev. This team went looking for high-frequency, short-wavelength vibrations in space and possibly time that could be gravitational waves unlike any we’ve ever detected. The search was performed using an itty bitty sensor that was cooled to stop vibrations, and it was encased in materials that should have isolated it from all electromagnetic interference.
During two separate observing periods, researchers monitored a pair of related frequencies, and on May 12 and November 27, 2019, the detected science went boink. These were days during which nothing actually exciting occurred in the environment of the detector that might explain the detections.
In the paper, they discuss how what they measured could be something as mundane as a high-speed charged particle – something called a cosmic ray – hitting the detector. As an astronomer who has had my images interrupted but cosmic rays, I feel like this explanation is the Occam’s Razor of answers – it works, and it is consistent with reality. That said, what they saw could also have observed unknown thermal effects or even high-frequency gravitational waves from theoretical axions spinning around a black hole. Or something even weirder.
I am very much an “if you see hoofprints look for the horse” kind of person, but as a bunch of folks in Maryland recently experienced, sometimes, hoofprints actually belong to an escaped herd of zebra that are now wandering the suburbs.
I hope this team has funding to continue this work and can eventually explain exactly what is making things go BOINK in the detector.
“Rare Events Detected with a Bulk Acoustic Wave High Frequency Gravitational Wave Antenna,” Maxim Goryachev et al., 2021 August 12, Physical Review Letters