Friday, 1 April 2016

April Fools' 16: Was LIGO a hack?

This post is an April Fools' joke. LIGO's gravitational waves are for real. At least I hope so ;) 

We have had recently a few scientific embarrassments, where a big discovery announced with great fanfares was subsequently overturned by new evidence.  We still remember OPERA's faster than light neutrinos which turned out to be a loose cable, or BICEP's gravitational waves from inflation, which turned out to be galactic dust emission... It seems that another such embarrassment is coming our way: the recent LIGO's discovery of gravitational waves emitted in a black hole merger may share a similar fate. There are reasons to believe that the experiment was hacked, and the signal was injected by a prankster.

From the beginning, one reason to be skeptical about LIGO's discovery was that the signal  seemed too beautiful to be true. Indeed, the experimental curve looked as if taken out of a textbook on general relativity, with a clearly visible chirp signal from the inspiral phase, followed by a ringdown signal when the merged black hole relaxes to the Kerr state. The reason may be that it *is* taken out of a  textbook. This is at least what is strongly suggested by recent developments.

On EvilZone, a well-known hacker's forum, a hacker using a nickname Madhatter was boasting that it was possible to tamper with scientific instruments, including the LHC, the Fermi satellite, and the LIGO interferometer.  When challenged, he or she uploaded a piece of code that allows one to access LIGO computers. Apparently, the hacker took advantage the same backdoor that allows the selected members of the LIGO team to inject a fake signal in order to test the analysis chain.  This was brought to attention of the collaboration members, who  decided to test the code. To everyone's bewilderment, the effect was to reproduce exactly the same signal in the LIGO apparatus as the one observed in September last year!

Even though the traces of a hack cannot be discovered, there is little doubt now that there was a foul play involved. It is not clear what was the motif of the hacker: was it just a prank, or maybe an elaborate plan to discredit the scientists. What is even more worrying is that the same thing could happen in other experiments. The rumor is that the ATLAS and CMS collaborations are already checking whether the 750 GeV diphoton resonance signal could also be injected by a hacker.