The Discovery of Gravitational Waves, and Why its A Scientific Breakthrough

On Thursday, at 10:30 a.m. EST, the National Science Foundation gathered scientists from Caltech, MIT and the LIGO Scientific Collaboration in Washington D.C. to update the scientific community on some of the efforts being made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (or LIGO for short) to detect gravitational waves in the deeper expanse of outer space. Theories about gravitational waves, their causes, and effects have been mused upon by scientists over the years, even as far back as Albert Einstein.

In the wake of some very specific rumors focused on the possible discovery of these elusive, powerful ripples in space and time, hopes were high that the international LIGO collaboration of scientists would finally put to rest the long fevered speculation and announce the discovery of gravitational waves. The full announcement didn’t disappoint.

So why exactly is this exciting? Whats the big deal? Well for starters, it proves Einstein was right.

Gravitational waves, in their most basic sense, are ripples in spacetime. Theorized by Albert Einstein over 100 years ago, these ripples carry gravitational energy away from accelerating massive objects in the cosmos. These waves are a prediction of Einstein’s theory of gravitation, called general relativity. In gravitational waves, space gets distorted in a particular pattern (a circle would deform into an ellipse, alternately elongated horizontally and compressed vertically and then compressed horizontally and elongated vertically). There have long been indirect measurements to confirm their existence, but a direct measurement is significant for several reasons:

(1) We would get explicit confirmation of a key aspect of general relativity.

(2) The kinds of events that produce sufficiently large gravitational waves are dramatic things — black holes or neutron stars merging or colliding, for example. We would be able to test general relativity and how it works in these situations.

(3) Probably more important, the ability to detect gravitational waves opens up a new means of observing the universe. For example, how often do black hole mergers occur? Historically, new means of observing the universe have enabled us to find new phenomena that we had not anticipated and to give us new ways to examine previously known phenomena.

These findings can and likely will change the way we see and study space, and I for one think its a very exciting time to be watching the stars.

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