SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago
SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago

Physicists Spot Einstein's Gravitational Waves for the First Time

SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago
SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago

Simulation of two merging black holes in front of the Milky Way. Scientists said the Sept. 14 event was so intense that in the moment before the colliding black holes swallowed each other, they emitted more energy than the rest of the universe combined.

After a decades-long search, physicists have managed to detect ethereal ripples in the very fabric of space, known as gravitational waves—triggered in this case by the death-spiral of a pair of merging black holes—and snared by a sophisticated detector known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The discovery is being described as one of the great physics breakthroughs of the decade, on par with the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, and very likely Nobel Prize–worthy.

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, told mental_floss that the discovery “monumental.” The new technology will allow astronomers “to peer into parts of the universe that we’d never could have seen otherwise,” Krauss said. More than that, it will pave the way for a new era in astronomy, one in which gravitational waves will be used to study a wide array of all astrophysical phenomena, many of them never before open to scientific scrutiny. “It’s opened up a whole new window on the universe,” he said—a metaphor that’s been echoed by many of the physicists and astronomers who have been weighing in excitedly on the discovery.

The discovery was unveiled Thursday morning at a packed Washington DC press conference organized by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research (with simultaneous presentations by partner institutions in at least four other countries).

The gravitational waves recorded by the LIGO detectors were the result of the violent merger of two black holes, located some 1.3 billion light-years from Earth, explained Gabriela González, a physicist at Louisiana State University and a spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration. One of the black holes was determined to have a mass 29 times that of our Sun, the other was even heavier, with a mass equal to 36 Suns. Although LIGO can only roughly pin down the direction of the signal, González said the black hole pair—now a single black hole, following the cataclysmic merger—is located in the southern sky, roughly in the direction of the Magellanic Clouds, the Milky Way’s small companion galaxies (of course, the black holes are far more distant).

The black hole pair had been locked in mutual orbit for hundreds of millions of years, gradually losing energy through the emission of gravitational waves, and then finally emitting one last “death burst” as the two objects merged into a single entity, González said. “What we saw is from only the last fraction of a second before the merger,” she told mental_floss.

The waves created from that final blast then rippled across the cosmos. After more than a billion years, some of those waves washed silently past Earth on September 14 of last year, where they triggered a tiny “blip” at each of the two identical LIGO detectors (one located in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana).

Incredibly, the team of researchers managed to keep the discovery relatively secret for almost six months. When the initial signal was recorded, Caltech physicist Kip Thorne received an e-mail from a colleague. “He said, ‘LIGO may have detected gravitational waves; go and look at this,’” referring Thorne to initial data posted on a private LIGO webpage. “I looked at it, and I said, ‘My god—this may be it!’” Thorne told mental_floss. (Thorne played a key role in the early development of LIGO and is known not only for writing some of the most-read books on gravitational physics, but for his collaboration with Carl Sagan on the book Contact, and with the makers of the smash sci-fi film Interstellar.)

Not everyone was quite so tight-lipped—and in fact rumors had been circulating for weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement (as mental_floss reported last month). A few people got an early look at the results and couldn’t contain their excitement. McMaster University physicist Clifford Burgess emailed some of the details to colleagues in his department, and the news quickly spilled out via social media. (Burgess described the discovery as “off-the-scale huge.”)

And while there have been a somewhat alarming number of super-hyped physics “discoveries” that failed to pan out in recent years—remember the faster-than-light neutrinos?—the LIGO researchers claim to have ruled out any possible non-gravitational-wave explanation for the signal they recorded. The finding is being published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Review Letters (the “discovery paper” was released yesterday morning, February 11), along with a series of further papers.

It’s a discovery nearly a quarter-century in the making: LIGO was spearheaded by Caltech and MIT in 1992, and now involves nearly 1000 researchers from the UK, Germany, Australia, and beyond. With a total cost of more than $600 million, LIGO is the largest project ever funded by NSF.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, based on his newly developed theory of gravity, known as general relativity, in 1915. Gravitational waves are literally ripples in spacetime, created whenever massive objects throw their weight around—for example, when ultra-dense stars, known as neutron stars, collide, or when a star blows up in a supernova. In fact, any time masses accelerate, gravitational waves are produced—even doing dumbbell-lifts at the gym would produce them—but such waves would be infinitesimally weak, and quite impossible to measure. Even the waves from the black hole merger were so faint that they required the massive LIGO detectors to finally pick them up.

“It’s just really, tremendously exciting,” physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida, one of the world’s leading authorities on general relativity, told mental_floss. “We’ve just finished celebrating the 100th anniversary of GR [general relativity], so this is icing on the cake.”

David Spergel, a physicist at Princeton, tweeted: “Up to now, we have only seen the universe. Now, for the first time, we can hear," adding, "The universe is playing a beautiful tune and LIGO just heard it.”

Gravitational waves alternately stretch and shrink space, by a tiny amount, as they pass by. Inside each of the LIGO detectors, laser beams bounce back and forth between mirrors attached to weights. A passing gravitational wave causes a slight change in the distance the laser beam travels, which leaves a telltale pattern (known as an interference pattern) in the recorded laser light. (Having two detectors located more than 2000 miles apart helps rule out false-alarm signals that might register at only one site.)

“We saw the same waveform—the same signal—in the two detectors,” González told mental_floss. Recording such signals by chance might happen “once in every 200,000 years,” she said.

LIGO went online in 2002, but with only a fraction of its current sensitivity. The detectors were upgraded last fall in an effort known as “Advanced LIGO.” The actual stretching caused by the passing gravitational wave is mind-bogglingly small, causing the detectors to grow or shrink in length by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

The success of the LIGO detectors is “a wonderful testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the scientists,” Krauss said. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.”

Astronomers and physicists expect the new technique to reveal the universe in a new light, as the first optical telescopes did when Galileo first used them to study the night sky 400 years ago, and as the first radio telescopes did in the mid-20th century.

Editor's note: This story has been significantly updated to include input from a main LIGO researcher and additional outside experts, as well as with more comprehensive details about the extraordinary find.

Charles Dickens Museum Highlights the Author's Contributions to Science and Medicine

Charles Dickens is celebrated for his verbose prose and memorable opening lines, but lesser known are his contributions to science—particularly the field of medicine.

A new exhibition at London’s Charles Dickens Museum—titled "Charles Dickens: Man of Science"—is showcasing the English author’s scientific side. In several instances, the writer's detailed descriptions of medical conditions predated and sometimes even inspired the discovery of several diseases, The Guardian reports.

In his novel Dombey and Son, the character of Mrs. Skewton was paralyzed on her right side and unable to speak. Dickens was the first person to document this inexplicable condition, and a scientist later discovered that one side of the brain was largely responsible for speech production. "Fat boy" Joe, a character in The Pickwick Papers who snored loudly while sleeping, later lent his namesake to Pickwickian Syndrome, otherwise known as obesity hypoventilation syndrome.

A figurine of Fat Boy Joe
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Dickens also wrote eloquently about the symptoms of tuberculosis and dyslexia, and some of his passages were used to teach diagnosis to students of medicine.

“Dickens is an unbelievably acute observer of human behaviors,” museum curator Frankie Kubicki told The Guardian. “He captures these behaviors so perfectly that his descriptions can be used to build relationships between symptoms and disease.”

Dickens was also chummy with some of the leading scientists of his day, including Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, and chemist Jane Marcet, and the exhibition showcases some of the writer's correspondence with these notable figures. Beyond medicine, Dickens also contributed to the fields of chemistry, geology, and environmental science.

Less scientifically sound was the author’s affinity for mesmerism, a form of hypnotism introduced in the 1770s as a method of controlling “animal magnetism,” a magnetic fluid which proponents of the practice believed flowed through all people. Dickens studied the methods of mesmerism and was so convinced by his powers that he later wrote, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a frying-pan.” A playbill of Animal Magnetism, an 1857 production that Dickens starred in, is also part of the exhibit.

A play script from Animal Magnetism
Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

Located at 48-49 Doughty Street in London, the exhibition will be on display until November 11, 2018.

[h/t The Guardian]

Feeling Down? Lifting Weights Can Lift Your Mood, Too

There’s plenty of research that suggests that exercise can be an effective treatment for depression. In some cases of depression, in fact—particularly less-severe ones—scientists have found that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants, which don’t work for everyone and can come with some annoying side effects. Previous studies have largely concentrated on aerobic exercise, like running, but new research shows that weight lifting can be a useful depression treatment, too.

The study in JAMA Psychiatry, led by sports scientists at the University of Limerick in Ireland, examined the results of 33 previous clinical trials that analyzed a total of 1877 participants. It found that resistance training—lifting weights, using resistance bands, doing push ups, and any other exercises targeted at strengthening muscles rather than increasing heart rate—significantly reduced symptoms of depression.

This held true regardless of how healthy people were overall, how much of the exercises they were assigned to do, or how much stronger they got as a result. While the effect wasn’t as strong in blinded trials—where the assessors don’t know who is in the control group and who isn’t, as is the case in higher-quality studies—it was still notable. According to first author Brett Gordon, these trials showed a medium effect, while others showed a large effect, but both were statistically significant.

The studies in the paper all looked at the effects of these training regimes on people with mild to moderate depression, and the results might not translate to people with severe depression. Unfortunately, many of the studies analyzed didn’t include information on whether or not the patients were taking antidepressants, so the researchers weren’t able to determine what role medications might play in this. However, Gordon tells Mental Floss in an email that “the available evidence supports that [resistance training] may be an effective alternative and/or adjuvant therapy for depressive symptoms that could be prescribed on its own and/or in conjunction with other depression treatments,” like therapy or medication.

There haven’t been a lot of studies yet comparing whether aerobic exercise or resistance training might be better at alleviating depressive symptoms, and future research might tackle that question. Even if one does turn out to be better than the other, though, it seems that just getting to the gym can make a big difference.


More from mental floss studios