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.

15 Facts About Nicolaus Copernicus

iStock
iStock

Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus fundamentally altered our understanding of science. Born on February 19, 1473, he popularized the heliocentric theory that all planets revolve around the Sun, ushering in the Copernican Revolution. But he was also a lifelong bachelor and member of the clergy who dabbled in medicine and economics. Dive in to these 15 facts about the father of modern astronomy.

1. He came from a family of merchants and clergy.

Some historians believe that Copernicus's name derives from Koperniki, a village in Poland named after tradesmen who mined and sold copper. The astronomer's father, also named Nicolaus Copernicus, was a successful copper merchant in Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, came from a powerful family of merchants, and her brother, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was an influential Bishop. Two of Copernicus's three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and one as a nun.

2. He was a polyglot.

Growing up, Copernicus likely knew both Polish and German. When Copernicus's father died when he was around 10, Lucas Watzenrode funded his nephew's education and he started learning Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began studying astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic at Krakow University. Five years later, he headed to modern Italy's Bologna University to study law, where he likely picked up some Italian. During his studies, he also read Greek, meaning modern historians think he knew or understood five languages.

3. He wasn't the first person to suggest heliocentrism ...

 A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Copernicus is credited with introducing heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But several ancient Greek and Islamic scholars from various cultures discussed similar ideas centuries earlier. For example, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 200s BCE, theorized that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.

4. … but he didn't fully give credit to earlier scholars.

To be clear, Copernicus knew of the work of earlier mathematicians. In a draft of his 1543 manuscript, he even included passages acknowledging the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus and other ancient Greek astronomers who had written previous versions of the theory. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, Copernicus removed this section; theories for the removal range from wanting to present the ideas as wholly his own to simply switching out a Latin quote for a "more erudite" Greek quote and incidentally removing Aristarchus. These extra pages weren't found for another 300-some years.

5. He made contributions to economics.

He's known for math and science, but Copernicus was also quite the economist. In 1517, he wrote a research paper outlining proposals for how the Polish monarch could simplify the country's multiple currencies, especially in regard to the debasement of some of those currencies. His ideas on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic principles such as Gresham's Law (the observation that "bad money drives out good" if they exchange for the same price; for example, if a country has both a paper $1 bill and a $1 coin, the value of the metal in the coin is higher than the value of the cotton and linen in the bill, and thus the bill will be spent as currency more because of that) and the Quantity Theory of Money (the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost).

6. He was a physician (but he didn't have a medical degree).

After studying law, Copernicus traveled to the University of Padua so he could become a medical advisor to his sick uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Despite spending two years studying medical texts and learning anatomy, Copernicus left medical school without a doctoral degree. Nevertheless, he traveled with his uncle and treated him, as well as other members of the clergy who needed medical attention.

7. He was probably a lifelong bachelor …

An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As an official in the Catholic Church, Copernicus took a vow of celibacy. He never married and was most likely a virgin (more on that below), but children were not completely absent from his life: After his older sister Katharina died, he became the financial guardian of her five children, his nieces and nephews.

8. … But he may have had an affair with his housekeeper.

Copernicus took a vow of celibacy, but did he keep it? In the late 1530s, the astronomer was in his sixties when Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, began living with him. Schilling may have been related to Copernicus—some historians think he was her great uncle—and she worked as his housekeeper for two years. For unknown reasons, the bishop he worked under admonished Copernicus twice for having Schilling live with him, even telling the astronomer to fire her and writing to other church officials about the matter.

9. He attended four universities before earning a degree.

A Polish stamp of Nicolaus Copernicus.
iStock

Copernicus spent over a decade studying at universities across Poland and Italy, but he usually left before he got his degree. Why skip the diplomas? Some historians argue that at the time, it was not unusual for students to leave a university without earning a degree. Moreover, Copernicus didn't need a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a member of the Catholic Church, or even to take graduate or higher level courses. 

But right before returning to Poland he received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. According to Copernicus scholar Edward Rosen this wasn't exactly for scholarly purposes, but that to "show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied."

10. He was cautious about publicizing his views.

During Copernicus's lifetime, nearly everyone believed in geocentrism—the view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Despite that, in the 1510s Copernicus wrote Commentariolus, or "the Little Commentary," a short text that discussed heliocentrism and was circulated amongst his friends. It was soon found circulating further afield, and it's said that Pope Clement VII heard a talk about the new theory and reacted favorably. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter of encouragement to Copernicus, but Copernicus still hesitated in publishing the full version. Some historians propose that Copernicus was worried about ridicule from the scientific community due to not being able to work out all of the issues heliocentrism created. Others propose that with the rise of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was increasingly cracking down on dissent and Copernicus feared persecution. Either way, he didn't make his complete work public until 1543.

11. He published his work on his deathbed.

An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system.
An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system, at the Tokyo International antique book fair on March 12, 2008. The book, published in 1543 and entitled in Latin "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI," carries a diagram that shows the Earth and other planets revolving around the Sun, countering the then-prevailing geocentric theory.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO, AFP/Getty Images

Copernicus finishing writing his book explaining heliocentrism, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs), in the 1530s. When he was on his deathbed in 1543, he finally decided to publish his controversial work. According to lore, the astronomer awoke from a coma to read pages from his just-printed book shortly before passing away.

12. Galileo was punished for agreeing with Copernicus.

Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, but the Catholic Church repudiated it decades after it was published, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books—pending revision—in 1616. A few years later, the Church ended the ban after editing the text to present Copernicus's views as wholly hypothetical. In 1633, 90 years after Copernicus's death, the Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of "strong suspicion of heresy" for espousing Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism. After a day in prison, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. There's a chemical element named after him.

Take a look at the periodic table of elements, and you might notice one with the symbol Cn. Called Copernicium, this element with atomic number 112 was named to honor the astronomer in 2010. The element is highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope having a half life of around 30 seconds.

14. Archaeologists finally discovered his remains in 2008.

Frombork Cathedral
iStock

Although Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried somewhere under the cathedral where he worked, archaeologists weren't sure of the exact location of his grave. They performed excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral, finally hitting pay dirt in 2005 by finding part of a skull and skeleton under the church's marble floor, near an altar. It took three years to complete forensic facial reconstruction and compare DNA from the astronomer's skeleton with hair from one of his books, but archeologists were able to confirm that they had found his skeleton. Members of the Polish clergy buried Copernicus for a second time at Frombork in 2010.

15. THERE ARE MONUMENTS TO HIM AROUND THE WORLD.

The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw, Poland.
iStock

A prominent statue of the astronomer, simply called the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, stands near the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. There are also replicas of this monument outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Montreal's Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Besides monuments, Copernicus also has a museum and research laboratory—Warsaw's Copernicus Science Centre—dedicated to him.

11 Spectacular Facts About the Moon

Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images

The Moon is Earth’s closest satellite in our solar system, but in many ways, we hardly know our neighbor. Scientists aren’t entirely sure how it formed, and other facts, like its shape (more egg-like than spherical), and the consistency of its surface (dusty but firm), were confirmed only recently. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing this year, and NASA preparing to return to the lunar surface for the first time in decades, it’s time to brush up on these facts about the Moon—from colorful names for full moons to the first landing on the dark side of the Moon.

1. The Moon may have formed when a giant object in the solar system hit Earth.

Scientists aren't in total agreement on how the Moon formed, but the most widely accepted theory is the giant impact hypothesis. According to this theory, an object the size of Mars called Theia collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system was still new and chaotic. The impact dislodged matter from Earth’s crust, and the debris attached to whatever was left of Theia through the force of gravity.

This scenario would explain why the Moon is made up of lighter elements found in Earth’s outer layer, but it still leaves some questions unanswered. If the giant impact hypothesis is correct, about 60 percent of the Moon should consist of the impact object. Instead, its composition is almost identical to that of Earth. There are alternative explanations: one posits that the Moon is a space object that got caught in Earth’s orbit, and another one suggests the Moon and Earth formed at the same time, but none is as popular as the giant impact theory.

2. The Moon is the perfect size for solar eclipses.

Moon covering sun during solar eclipse.
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

A lucky set of circumstances make total solar eclipses, as seen from Earth, possible. The Moon is just the right size and distance from our planet to appear as the same size as the Sun in the sky. When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, it covers the Sun perfectly with an impressive corona illuminating its edges. If it were any smaller or farther from Earth, it would look like a blot on the Sun during a solar eclipse.

3. A full Moon has different nicknames in different seasons.

A full moon can have many colorful names, but they don’t always describe a special celestial phenomenon. Some are used to refer to a full moon that appears during a certain time of year. A harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, is the best-known example, but there are many others, including a wolf moon (first full moon of January), strawberry moon (June), and sturgeon moon (August).

4. It’s the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet.

Our Moon isn’t the largest in the solar system (that distinction goes to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons), but it is the biggest in relation to the planet it orbits. With a diameter of 2159 miles and a surface area of 14.6 million square miles, the Moon is a little more than one-fourth the size of Earth. The dwarf planet Pluto has an even smaller moon-to-planet ratio. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is nearly the size of its host body, leading some astronomers to refer to the pair as a double-dwarf planet.

5. The Moon is shaped like a lemon.

The Moon may look perfectly round in the night sky, but it’s actually more of an oval shape. It came out wonky billions of years ago when super-hot tidal forces shaped its crust, heating up some areas hotter than others to form a lemon shape rather than a perfect sphere. Gravitational forces from Earth have helped to exaggerate the Moon’s oblong appearance over eons.

6. Scientists thought Moon dust would cause lunar landers to sink.

Lunar module over moon's surface.
NASA/Newsmakers

When preparing to send missions to the Moon, some scientists feared that a thick layer of dust on the body’s surface would cause complications. One of the strongest proponents of the dust theory was Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. He insisted that the Moon was covered in seas of dust soft and thick enough to swallow a lunar lander. Though the Moon’s surface is dusty, the layer is too thin to cause problems, as the successful landings of the Soviet Luna 9 and the American Surveyor spacecrafts proved in 1966.

7. The Moon is international property.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong may have planted an American flag on the Moon in 1969, but it belongs to the world. Countries like the Soviet Union and the U.S. made sure of that at the height of the space race in 1967 when they signed the Outer Space Treaty, a document declaring that the Moon would be a “global commons” and any resources discovered there would be used for the good of the world overall. In keeping with the spirit of the agreement, NASA shared soil samples taken from the Moon with Soviet scientists upon the Apollo 11 mission's return.

8. Humans have left strange things on the Moon.

Since the first people landed on the Moon in 1969, its surface has been home to more than just dust. Earth artifacts left on the Moon by astronauts include two golf balls, an obscene Andy Warhol doodle, and a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander and one of the last people to walk on the Moon, traced his daughter’s initials into the soil when he visited in 1972. Without any wind or weather on the Moon, the letters TDC could remain there forever.

9. The "dark side of the Moon" is the result of synchronous rotation.

Even though the Moon is constantly rotating, only one side of it is visible from Earth. This is because the Moon is locked in synchronous rotation. It takes the Moon just as long to complete one full rotation as it does for the body to orbit around the Earth once, so the same side always faces our planet. This isn’t a coincidence—the Earth’s gravitational forces have gradually pulled the tip of the slightly oblong Moon to point toward the planet, creating something called tidal lock.

In January 2019, the Chinese space agency landed the first lunar probe on the unexplored dark side of the Moon. The Chang'e 4 spacecraft sent the first photographs of a massive impact crater on the dark side to Earth, giving scientists their first glimpse of that unknown region.

10. One astronaut was allergic to the Moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt discovered the hard way that some people are allergic to Moon matter. Following a survey of a valley in the Sea of Serenity, he climbed back into the crew’s lunar module and tracked in a lot of Moon dust with him. The dust affected him as soon as he removed his spacesuit, triggering red eyes, sneezing fits, and other symptoms that lasted two hours.

11. Humans are going back to the Moon soon.

After completing several manned missions to the Moon, NASA ended the Apollo program in 1972 as budgets tightened and public interest waned. That means most people alive today have never witnessed a manned lunar landing, but now, following a hiatus nearing 50 years, NASA is finally preparing to return to the Moon. The next manned lunar expedition will be ready to launch “no later than the late 2020s,” according to the space agency. One of the goals will be placing a command module, called Gateway, in the Moon’s orbit that astronauts can reuse over multiple missions.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER