5 Things We Know About Gravitational Waves—And 2 That Are a Mystery

An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
LIGO/T. Pyle

Gravitational waves, first detected in fall 2015 and then again a few months later, are making headlines this week following the detection of a third pair of colliding black holes. This particular duo is located a whopping 3 billion light years from Earth, making it the most distant source of gravitational waves discovered so far.

The signal from this latest black hole merger tripped the detectors at the twin LIGO facilities on January 4 of this year (the acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory). The newly created black hole—the result of this latest cosmic collision—weighs in at about 49 times the mass of the Sun, putting it in-between the two earlier black hole collisions that LIGO recorded, in terms of size. There’s now ample evidence that black holes can weigh more than 20 solar masses—a finding that challenges the traditional understanding of black hole formation. “These are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” David Shoemaker, an MIT physicist and spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration, said in a statement.

Gravitational waves are shaping up to be the hot new astronomical tool of the 21st century, offering glimpses into the universe’s darkest corners and providing insights into the workings of the cosmos that we can’t get by any other means. Here, then, are five things we know about these cosmic ripples, and a couple more things that we haven’t quite figured out yet:

1. THEY'D HAVE MADE EINSTEIN SMILE.

We knew, or at least strongly suspected, that gravitational waves existed long before their discovery in 2015. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, published just over 100 years ago. The first black hole mergers observed by LIGO produced tell-tale cosmic signatures that meshed perfectly with what Einstein’s theory predicted. But the black hole collision announced this week may yield yet another feather for Einstein’s cap. It involves something called “dispersion.” When waves of different wavelengths pass through a physical medium—like light passing through glass, for example—the rays of light diverge (this is the how a prism creates a rainbow). But Einstein’s theory says gravitational waves ought to be immune to this sort of dispersion—and this is exactly what the observations suggest, with this latest black hole merger providing the strongest confirmation so far. (This Einstein fellow was pretty bright!)

2. THEY'RE RIPPLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACE-TIME.

According to Einstein’s theory, whenever a massive object is accelerated, it creates ripples in space-time. Typically, these cosmic disturbances are too small to notice; but when the objects are massive enough—a pair of colliding black holes, for example—then the signal may be large enough to trigger a “blip” at the LIGO detectors, the pair of gravitational wave laboratories located in Louisiana and in Washington state. Even with colliding black holes, however, the ripples are mind-bogglingly small: When a gravitational wave passes by, each 2.5-mile-long arm of the L-shaped LIGO detectors gets stretched and squeezed by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

3. THEY LET US "LISTEN" TO THE UNIVERSE.

At least in a figurative sense, gravitational waves let us “listen in” on some of the universe’s most violent happenings. In fact, the way that gravitational waves work is closely analogous to sound waves or water waves. In each case, you have a disturbance in a particular medium that causes waves to spread outward, in ever-increasing circles. (Sound waves are a disturbance in the air; water waves are a disturbance in water—and in the case of gravitational waves, it’s a disturbance in the fabric of space itself.) To “hear” gravitational waves, you just have to convert the signals received by LIGO into sound waves. So what do we actually hear? In the case of colliding black holes, it’s something like a cosmic “chirp”—a kind of whooping sound that progresses quickly from low pitch to high.

4. THEY'VE SHOWN US THAT YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET TOO CLOSE TO A PAIR OF COLLIDING BLACK HOLES.

Thanks to gravitational waves, we’re learning a lot about that most mysterious of objects, the black hole. When two black holes collide, they form an even bigger black hole—but not quite as large as you’d expect from simply adding up the masses of the two original black holes. That’s because some of the mass gets converted into energy, via Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. The magnitude of the explosion is truly staggering.

As astronomer Duncan Brown told Mental Floss last June: “When a nuclear bomb explodes, you’re converting about a gram of matter—about the weight of a thumb-tack—into energy. Here, you’re converting the equivalent of the mass of the Sun into energy, in a tiny fraction of a second.” The blast could produce more energy than all the stars in the universe—for a split-second.

5. THEY MIGHT BE POWERFUL ENOUGH TO KICK A BLACK HOLE OUT OF A GALAXY.

This spring, astronomers discovered a “rogue” black hole moving speedily away from a distant galaxy known as 3C186, located some 8 billion light years from Earth. The black hole is believed to weigh as much as 1 billion Suns—which means it must have received quite a kick, to set it in motion (its speed was determined to be around 5 million miles per hour, or a bit less than 1 percent of the speed of light). Astronomers have suggested that the necessary energy may have come from gravitational waves produced by a pair of very heavy black holes that collided near the galaxy’s center.

But there’s still plenty we’d like to know about gravitational waves—and about the objects they let us probe. For example …

6. WE DON'T KNOW IF GRAVITATIONAL WAVES CONTRIBUTE TO "DARK MATTER."

Most of the mass of the universe—about 85 percent—is stuff we can’t see; astronomers call this unseen material “dark matter.” Exactly what this dark stuff is has been the subject of intense debate for decades. The leading theory is that dark matter is made up of exotic particles created soon after the big bang. But some physicists have speculated that so-called “primordial black holes”—black holes created in the first second of the universe’s existence—might make up a significant fraction of the mysterious dark matter. The theorists who back this idea say that it could help to explain the unusually high masses of the black hole binary systems that LIGO has detected so far.

7. WE DON'T KNOW IF THEY ARE EVIDENCE OF DIMENSIONS BEYOND THE ONES WE PERCEIVE.

Particle physicists and cosmologists have long speculated about the existence of “extra dimensions” beyond the four we experience (three for space and one for time). It was hoped that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider would offer hints of these dimensions, but no such evidence has turned up so far. Some physicists, however, suggest that gravitational waves might provide a clue. They speculate that gravity could freely spread out over all of the dimensions, perhaps explaining why gravity is such a weak force (it’s by far the weakest of the four known forces in nature). Further, they say that the existence of extra dimensions would leave their mark on the gravitational waves that we measure here on Earth. So, stay tuned: It’s only been a bit more than a year since we first detected gravitational waves; no doubt they have much more to tell us about our universe.

Some Mathematicians Think the Equal Sign is On Its Way Out

Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images
Paperkites/iStock via Getty Images

A growing number of mathematicians are skeptical that the equal sign, traditionally used to show exact relationships between sets of objects, holds up to new mathematical models, WIRED reports.

To understand their arguments, it’s important to understand set theory—a theory of mathematics that’s been around since at least the 1870s [PDF]. Take the classic formula 1+1=2. Say you have four pieces of fruit—an apple, an orange, and two bananas—and you put the apple and the orange on one side of a table and the two bananas on the other. In set theory, that’s an equation: One piece of fruit plus one piece of fruit on the left side of the table equals two pieces of fruit on the right side of the table. The two sets, or collections of objects, are the same size, so they’re equal.

But here’s where it gets complicated. What if you put an apple and a banana on the left side of the table and an orange and a banana on the other side? That’s clearly different from the first scenario, but set theory writes it as the same thing: 1+1=2. What if you switched the order of the first set of objects, so instead of having an apple and an orange, you had an orange and an apple? What if you had only bananas? There are potentially infinite scenarios, but set theory is limited to expressing them all in only one way.

“The problem is, there are many ways to pair up,” Joseph Campbell, a mathematics professor at Duke University, told Quanta Magazine. “We’ve forgotten them when we say ‘equals.’”

A better alternative is the idea of equivalence, some mathematicians say [PDF]. Equality is a strict relationship, but equivalence comes in different forms. The two-bananas-on-each-side-of-the-table scenario is considered strong equivalence—all of the elements in both sets are the same. The scenario where you have an apple and an orange on one side and two bananas on the other? That’s a slightly weaker form of equivalence.

A new wave of mathematicians is turning to the idea of category theory [PDF], which is based in understanding the relationships between different objects. Category theory is better than set theory at dealing with equivalence, and it’s also more universally applicable to different branches of mathematics.

But a switch to category theory won’t come overnight, according to Quanta. Interpreting equations using equivalence rather than equality is much more complicated, and it requires relearning and rewriting everything about mathematics—even down to algebra and arithmetic.

“This complicates matters enormously, in a way that makes it seem impossible to work with this new version of mathematics we’re imagining,” mathematician David Ayala told Quanta.

Several mathematicians are at the forefront of category theory research, but the field is still relatively young. So while the equal sign isn’t passé just yet, it’s likely that an oncoming mathematical revolution will change its meaning.

[h/t Wired]

7 Facts About Blood

Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images
Moussa81/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone knows that when you get cut, you bleed—a result of the constant movement of blood through our bodies. But do you know all of the functions the circulatory system actually performs? Here are some surprising facts about human blood—and a few cringe-worthy theories that preceded the modern scientific understanding of this vital fluid.

1. Doctors still use bloodletting and leeches to treat diseases.

Ancient peoples knew the circulatory system was important to overall health. That may be one reason for bloodletting, the practice of cutting people to “cure” everything from cancer to infections to mental illness. For the better part of two millennia, it persisted as one of the most common medical procedures.

Hippocrates believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of four “humors”—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. For centuries, doctors believed balance could be restored by removing excess blood, often by bloodletting or leeches. It didn’t always go so well. George Washington, for example, died soon after his physician treated a sore throat with bloodletting and a series of other agonizing procedures.

By the mid-19th century, bloodletting was on its way out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Bloodletting is an effective treatment for some rare conditions like hemochromatosis, a hereditary condition causing your body to absorb too much iron.

Leeches have also made a comeback in medicine. We now know that leech saliva contains substances with anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, and anesthetic properties. It also contains hirudin, an enzyme that prevents clotting. It lets more oxygenated blood into the wound, reducing swelling and helping to rebuild tiny blood vessels so that it can heal faster. That’s why leeches are still sometimes used in treating certain circulatory diseases, arthritis, and skin grafting, and helps reattach fingers and toes. (Contrary to popular belief, even the blood-sucking variety of leech is not all that interested in human blood.)

2. Scientists didn't understand how blood circulation worked until the 17th century.

William Harvey, an English physician, is generally credited with discovering and demonstrating the mechanics of circulation, though his work developed out of the cumulative body of research on the subject over centuries.

The prevailing theory in Harvey’s time was that the lungs, not the heart, moved blood through the body. In part by dissecting living animals and studying their still-beating hearts, Harvey was able to describe how the heart pumped blood through the body and how blood returned to the heart. He also showed how valves in veins helped control the flow of blood through the body. Harvey was ridiculed by many of his contemporaries, but his theories were ultimately vindicated.

3. Blood types were discovered in the early 20th century.

Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner discovered different blood groups in 1901, after he noticed that blood mixed from people with different types would clot. His subsequent research classified types A, B and O. (Later research identified an additional type, AB). Blood types are differentiated by the kinds of antigens—molecules that provoke an immune system reaction—that attach to red blood cells.

People with Type A blood have only A antigens attached to their red cells but have B antigens in their plasma. In those with Type B blood, the location of the antigens is reversed. Type O blood has neither A nor B antigens on red cells, but both are present in the plasma. And finally, Type AB has both A and B antigens on red cells but neither in plasma. But wait, there’s more! When a third antigen, called the Rh factor, is present, the blood type is classified as positive. When Rh factor is absent, the blood type is negative.

Scientists still don’t understand why humans have different blood types, but knowing yours is important: Some people have life-threatening reactions if they receive a blood type during a transfusion that doesn’t “mix” with their own. Before researchers developed reliable ways to detect blood types, that tended to turn out badly for people receiving an incompatible human (or animal!) blood transfusion.

4. Blood makes up about 8 percent of our total body weight.

Adult bodies contain about 5 liters (5.3 quarts) of blood. An exception is pregnant women, whose bodies can produce about 50 percent more blood to nourish a fetus.)

Plasma, the liquid portion of blood, accounts for about 3 liters. It carries red and white blood cells and platelets, which deliver oxygen to our cells, fight disease, and repair damaged vessels. These cells are joined by electrolytes, antibodies, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients required to maintain all the other cells in the body.

5. A healthy red blood cell lasts for roughly 120 days.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that delivers oxygen to all the other cells in our bodies. It also carries carbon dioxide from those cells back to the lungs.

Red blood cells are produced in bone marrow, but not everyone produces healthy ones. People with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition, develop malformed red blood cells that get stuck in blood vessels. These blood cells last about 10 to 20 days, which leads to a chronic shortage of red blood cells, often causing to pain, infection, and organ damage.

6. Blood might play a role in treating Alzheimer's disease.

In 2014, research led by Stanford University scientists found that injecting the plasma of young mice into older mice improved memory and learning. Their findings follow years of experiments in which scientists surgically joined the circulatory systems of old and young mice to test whether young blood could reverse signs of aging. Those results showed rejuvenating effects of a particular blood protein on the organs of older mice.

The Stanford team’s findings that young blood had positive effects on mouse memory and learning sparked intense interest in whether it could eventually lead to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related conditions.

7. The sight of blood can make people faint.

For 3 to 4 percent of people, squeamishness associated with blood, injury, or invasive medical procedures like injections rises to the level of a true phobia called blood injury injection phobia (BII). And most sufferers share a common reaction: fainting.

Most phobias cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and often muscle tension, shakes, and sweating: part of the body’s sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response. But sufferers of BII experience an added symptom. After initially increasing, their blood pressure and heart rate will abruptly drop.

This reaction is caused by the vagus nerve, which works to keep a steady heart rate, among other things. But the vagus nerve sometimes overdoes it, pushing blood pressure and heart rate too low. (You may have experienced this phenomenon if you’ve ever felt faint while hungry, dehydrated, startled, or standing up too fast.) For people with BII, the vasovagal response can happen at the mere sight or suggestion of blood, needles, or bodily injury, making even a routine medical or dental checkup cause for dread and embarrassment.

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