Day 17: Space, the Final Frontier (Why Gravitational Waves Matter)

7:40 PM

Disclaimer! I am not an astrophysicist, a theoretical physicist, or an astronomer! 

With that out of the way, I am an avid reader, and one of my interests is theoretical physics. Yes, I realize that makes me a colossal nerd. No, I don't care. (#nerdyandproud) If someone with a better grasp of these fields comes across this post, please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!

But what does today's announcement that gravitational waves were detected mean? And what are the potential ramifications?
First of all, that crazy-cool man you see above theorized that, according to the laws of General Relativity, gravitational waves have to exist. They have to, or else our understanding of the universe -- and of gravity itself -- isn't up to snuff. The issue was the equipment. It wasn't sensitive enough. 

This is where LIGO comes in. The LIGO detectors are a pair of L-shaped rods, one in Washington state, the other in Louisiana. Several months ago, they picked up on a ripple of activity -- gravitational waves. Lots and lots of math happened, and it was confirmed that the frequency of this ripple matched up with the predicted frequency of two black holes fusing together roughly a billion light years away.  

Why is that cool? Well, aside from the whole "billion light years away" thing, the creation of a black hole is incredible. One of the ways a black hole forms is when a star collapses. Basically, all fusion taking place within the star stops, and it collapses in on itself, but the gravity from the star lingers on like the star's ghost. 

Imagine making a pizza the size of a football field and condensing it until it's the size of a dime. Sounds weird, but just go with me on this. The diameter of the dime-pizza is tiny -- in the case of a black hole, it could be a few miles in diameter, which is very small in space -- but the little dime-pizza is also extremely heavy. The gravity of the original pizza's size is exactly the same as it was, but now it's super concentrated. 

Just as crushing a delicious, cheesy pizza into a useless, dime-sized bite would disturb any good foodie, this concentration of gravity is enough to disturb space-time. What LIGO detected was two dime-pizzas merging and forming a quarter-pizza, maybe a silver dollar-pizza. And we saw these dime-pizzas merging from a distance of one billion light years. 
This opens up an entirely new field of observation for astronomers, who are used to measuring in light waves -- radio waves, x-rays, infrared waves, and so on. As Professor Stephen Hawking, who made predictions confirmed by this discovery in 1970, said, "Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionize astronomy. This discovery is the first detection of a black hole binary system and the first observation of black holes merging."

In other words? Seriously awesome stuff. What was once the realm of science fiction is now reality. 

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4 comments

  1. I understood that reference. Thanks for taking the time to break all that down. It was an interesting read.

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  2. No problemo! Except now I kind of want pizza...

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  3. From a fellow nerd. I've been following this for decades. It only made sense. Marco

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    Replies
    1. I'm honestly still freaking out right now. That's how excited I am.

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