What’s the Deal with Gravitational Waves?


"Aerial photo of LIGO Livingston, Louisiana, showing all of one 4 km long arm and part of the other (off to the right)" https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/page/what-is-ligo

Alexander Iyabor, News Editor

So by now you’ve probably heard a lot of news about gravitational waves, but unless you’re technically or scientifically oriented you probably don’t know a lot about what’s going on.


The Basics

On Thursday February 11th a team of researchers at the Cal Tech and MIT joint venture LIGO Labs announced that they had observed and recorded an instance of gravitational waves, distortions in the fabric of space time caused by violent universal processes. The specific instance recorded is from the collision of two black holes approximately a billion light years away. The fact that scientists we able to detect such an incredibly minuscule distortion in space-time is a testament not only to the genius of the experiment but also to the pace of technological and scientific growth.


What Does This Have to Do with General Relativity?

It’s important to note that this scientific event does not “confirm” or “prove” anything. Those are misleading terms. Instead it provides strong evidence for the existence of gravitational waves, phenomena that was predicted by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In essence the evidence for the existence of gravitational waves is in itself evidence supporting Einstein’s theory.


Why Does this Matter?

In terms of Einstein’s theory, the discovery simply adds to the already large body of evidence in support of General Relativity. But the theory can never really be truly “proven”. It simply remains a theory until other bodies of evidence work to disprove it. It is quite possible that as our knowledge of the universe grows General Relativity may no longer hold and a new model will come to replace it similar to how Classical Mechanics was disproven. But rest assured, even if General Relativity is disproven, it will continue to be a major source of scientific modeling for the foreseeable future and as such will have a hand to play in a litany of major future scientific discoveries that, with more development, will go on to affect your everyday life.

The real reason this discovery is important is not in relation to Einstein’s theory but instead in relation to the development of technology that is now capable of observing universal events. Consider this for a second: not only did humans just recorded a major scientific event that is unobservable by conventional methods, we did so from a BILLION light years away. We are a far away from the days of telescopes. We now have a new way of observing and recording the universe which will surely lead to many more impressive discoveries and scientific events in the future.

If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind gravitational waves, how LIGO works, and the forty-year history of this specific experiment, you can discover more from LIGO’s website, http://www.ligo.org/science/overview.php.