Ever since Einstein first predicted the existence of Gravitational Waves over 100 years ago, physicists have been hunting for confirmation of these ripples in space-time.  Well, finally that hunt is over.  Gravitational Waves exists, and this changes everything.

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According to research from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), these waves are real, and we have directly confirmed their existence.  Researchers have detected false signals before, and the rumours regarding this latest findings have been flying for almost a month.  The team at LIGO have held off making the announcement this time around to make sure the findings were correct.

Gravitational Waves are here

The waves were observed on September 14th 2015 at exactly 5:51 am ET by separate LIGO detectors, one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana.  The waves come from a collision between supermassive black holes that took place 1.3 billion years ago.  When the black holes collide, a mass equal to about 3 times the mass of our sun was turned into energy in milliseconds.

The discovery has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters.

Gravitational Waves are ripples in the spacetime of the universe caused by large-scale cosmic events; everything from exploding suns to colliding black holes.  As the waves move through space (and time), they cause tiny movement in atoms all around the universe.  Einstein first predicted them as part of his General Theory of Relativity (you know, E=Mc2) back in 1916, and their existence was inferred way back in the 1980s.  It wasn’t until the LIGO detectors switched on back in 2002 that we could really detect these ripples in spacetime.

SpaceTime

The first LIGO detectors were too weak to pick up these waves, and after a series of upgrades, the detectors came back on this fall.

Some hopeful scientists thought we could confirm Gravitational waves in a decade, others were more outlandish, suggesting we’d find them by the end of 2016.  In reality, LIGO saw gravitational waves almost as soon as it turned back on.  The LIGO team spent most of the fall and winter of 2015 investigating and running diagnostics on the instruments and ruling out environmental factors to confirm the signal was real.

In the Theory of Relativity, Einstein postulated that when, say, a pair of black holes orbit each other, the slowly lose energy.  This causes them to slowly inch closer to each other.  As they slowly begin to merge, the start speeding up considerably, until, moving at about half the speed of life (the in E=MC2) the smash into each other, forming a Supermassive Black Hole.  This releases a huge, unimaginable amount of energy, releasing thought space and time as Gravitational Waves.

“The description of this observation is beautifully described in the Einstein theory of general relativity formulated 100 years ago and comprises the first test of the theory in strong gravitation…It would have been wonderful to watch Einstein’s face had we been able to tell him.”

-Rainer Weiss, Professor Emeritus of physics, MIT.

Gravitational waves

 

This discovery confirms some important aspects of the Theory of Relativity, but it goes quite beyond that.  This is going to open up a new chapter in physics and the exploration oft universe.  This means Electromagnetic Radiation, the standard for cosmic telescopes, is no longer our only option.

“There’s a lot of rich information encoded in gravitational waves…As an astronomer, I try to think about how to go from the ‘sound’ of the waveform that LIGO measures, to the parameters that produce that waveform.  Actually getting some demographic data is one of the key things we hope to do in an era of detection…Whenever first detection happens, there’s gonna be a party, no question…but after that, when detection becomes routine, is when things start getting really interesting.”

–  Scott Hughes, MIT Astrophysicist

A century-long hunt is over, but this find has changed our understanding of the Universe

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4 COMMENTS

  1. Shifting tectonic plates cause earthquakes, and several human activities cause shifting tectonic plates—however, the effect is indirect.

    Not all geologists agree about to what extent, and how often, human activity affects seismic activity. In fact, there have to be natural risk factors—specifically, unstable fault lines—for an earthquake to occur. However, the evidence is there that humans are creating situations that can agitate, lubricate, and put pressure on these plates. In fact, a book called Waking the Giant by Bill McGuire documents the science behind climate change creating ideal conditions for tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

    A Japanese rescuer works with a sniffer dog during the search for survivors at a flattened building in Mexico City on September 22, 2017 three days after a strong quake hit central Mexico. A powerful 7.1 earthquake shook Mexico City on Tuesday, causing panic among the megalopolis’ 20 million inhabitants on the 32nd anniversary of a devastating 1985 quake. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images
    Here’s how climate change can lead to more earthquakes, according to scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey and CEO of earthquake app Temblor Ross Stein:

    First, climate change causes weather events that people want to be prepared for. People in Lima, for instance, are concerned that, if nearby glaciers melt completely, they will no longer have a water source.

    In response, people dam more rivers and dig more reservoirs so that they’ll have water to prepare for the future.

    People are building reservoirs on fault lines all around the world, filling and draining them. The water in the reservoir can lubricate faults, and filling and draining the reservoir creates and lifts pressure. Furthermore, filling a reservoir can force pressure on water at the bottom, which can run into the ground and create cracks and instability.

    Fault lines grind against each other; they don’t slip past each other smoothly or evenly. As pressure builds and the faults are agitated, they eventually jolt suddenly—creating an earthquake.

    In addition to the earthquake, there’s another danger to building reservoirs on faults. “If a fault ruptured that is now beneath a reservoir, the risk is that the reservoir would catastrophically collapse and inundate low areas around it,” said Stein. A community could be left flooded, and then without stored water.

    Around the world, people are seeing more seismic activity around recently-built reservoirs, a phenomenon called Reservoir-Induced Seismicity or Dam-Induced Seismicity.

    However, it’s difficult to objectively prove that reservoirs cause earthquakes. While areas with reservoirs tend to have a lot of seismic activity, one could argue that those areas would have had earthquakes anyway.

    That’s why it’s important to set up instruments and measure seismic activity in an area when a government is planning on putting a reservoir there, Stein said. That way, we can compare the before-and-after. “What’s really important is knowing, what is the earth telling us before we build the reservoir?” he said.

    So did climate change or reservoirs cause the recent earthquakes in Mexico? “I doubt it,” said Stein. “If there’s a signal there it’s almost impossible to tease out of the process of plate tectonics that really drives those earthquakes.”

    “We’ve known about those earthquakes on the Mexican coastline for 500 years,” Stein went on. “So that’s business as usual.”

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