Scientists have observed spacetime ripples known as gravitational waves over 100 years after Albert Einstein theorized their existence, and the world of science is abuzz.
In 1905, an unknown Einstein made a big splash in the physics world by proposing, among other things, the special theory of relativity. Einstein later won the Nobel Prize in physics for his ideas and contributions, but arguably his biggest legacy is the general theory of relativity—his notion on gravity.
Einstein’s theory made previously untenable predictions about the universe. The essence of GR is this: matter tells space how to curve, and space tells matter where to go. Einstein predicted ripples through spacetime should radiate away from gravitational interactions between massive objects—he called these ripples gravitational waves.
In the case of the world’s first discovery of these waves, they came from a collision about 1.3 billion years ago between two black holes, each about 30 times more massive than the sun. Although Einstein’s predictions have come to fruition, GR is not perfect or true in any absolute sense. A scientific theory is only useful if there are experiments to test it, so scientists are constantly pushing the envelope to try and disprove GR. Every theory must fail somewhere. But even the best ones leave room for surprises.
Now, I left out many details in this story because it is important for people to read about it. A scientific endeavor is a human venture more suspenseful than any crime drama, and as humbling as any tragedy. The apparatus that measured the gravitational waves, LIGO, is a phenomenal display of scientific success. Brian Greene gave an impactful and easily digestible explanation of the discovery on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Everyone should care about the discovery of gravitational waves, not just scientists or professionals, but the entire world. We should be inspired by their existence. The discovery can be likened to the first person found light, which didn’t actually happen. This is a huge discovery for the human species and it opens up an entirely new way of looking upon the universe. Light can be blocked, but gravity cannot—as far as we can tell.
We are going to use these waves to study ideas never before imagined. The combining of black holes and perhaps even the Big Bang itself are just a couple event that can now be studied again. As Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself,” and this recent discovery is certainly a new method for the universe to gawk at its own complex beauty.
This is not just a discovery for the physics world, it is a tremendous step forward for the human race because it means we are no longer handicapped by our eyes when asking questions about what we see in the cosmos.