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.

Tonight, the Lyrid Meteor Shower Peaks on Earth Day

iStock/dmoralesf
iStock/dmoralesf

Tonight, look up and you might see shooting stars streaking across the sky. On the night of Monday, April 22—Earth Day—and the morning of Tuesday, April 23, the Lyrid meteor shower will peak over the Northern Hemisphere. Make some time for the celestial show and you'll probably see meteors zooming across the heavens every few minutes. Here is everything you need to know about this meteor shower.

What is the Lyrid meteor shower?

Every 415.5 years, the comet Thatcher circles the Sun in a highly eccentric orbit shaped almost like a cat's eye. At its farthest from the Sun, it's billions of miles from Pluto; at its nearest, it swings between the Earth and Mars. (The last time it was near the Earth was in 1861, and it won't be that close again until 2280.) That's quite a journey, and more pressingly, quite a variation in temperature. The closer it gets to the Sun, the more debris it sheds. That debris is what you're seeing when you see a meteor shower: dust-sized particles slamming into the Earth's atmosphere at tens of thousands of miles per hour. In a competition between the two, the Earth is going to win, and "shooting stars" are the result of energy released as the particles are vaporized.

The comet was spotted on April 4, 1861 by A.E. Thatcher, an amateur skywatcher in New York City, earning him kudos from the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel. Clues to the comet's discovery are in its astronomical designation, C/1861 G1. The "C" means it's a long-period comet with an orbit of more than 200 years; "G" stands for the first half of April, and the "1" indicates it was the first comet discovered in that timeframe.

Sightings of the Lyrid meteor shower—named after Lyra, the constellation it appears to originate from—are much older; the first record dates to 7th-century BCE China.

How to See the Lyrid Meteor Shower

Monday night marks a waning gibbous Moon (just after the full Moon), which will reflect a significant amount of light. You're going to need to get away from local light pollution and find truly dark skies, and to completely avoid smartphones, flashlights, car headlights, or dome lights. The goal is to let your eyes adjust totally to the darkness: Find your viewing area, lay out your blanket, lay down, look up, and wait. In an hour, you'll be able to see the night sky with great—and if you've never done this before, surprising—clarity. Don't touch the smartphone or you'll undo all your hard ocular work.

Where is the nearest dark sky to where you live? You can find out on the Dark Site Finder map. And because the shower peaks on a Monday night—when you can expect to see 20 meteors per hour—your local astronomy club is very likely going to have an event to celebrate the Lyrid meteor shower. Looking for a local club? Sky & Telescope has you covered.

Other Visible Bodies During the Lyrid meteor shower

You don't need a telescope to see a meteor shower, but if you bring one, aim it south to find Jupiter. It's the bright, unblinking spot in the sky. With a telescope, you should be able to make out its stripes. Those five stars surrounding it are the constellation Libra. You'll notice also four tiny points of light nearby. Those are the Galilean moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. When Galileo discovered those moons in 1610, he was able to prove the Copernican model of heliocentricity: that the Earth goes around the Sun.

What to Do if There's Bad Weather During the Lyrid Meteor Shower

First: Don't panic. The shower peaks on the early morning of April 23. But it doesn't end that day. You can try again on April 24 and 25, though the numbers of meteors will likely diminish. The Lyrid meteor shower will be back next year, and the year after, and so on. But if you are eager for another show, on May 5, the Eta Aquarids will be at their strongest. The night sky always delivers.

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the Moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the Moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the Moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the Moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception—in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full Moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

This story was updated in 2019.

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