The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a pair of ground-based observatories. But…what are gravitational waves?
Imagine dropping a pebble in a pond. This creates ripples, which emerge from the point of impact and travel across the surface of the pond. Now replace the pebble with a slightly bigger object — a black hole or a massive star. Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which posits that gravity warps the fabric of cosmos, also tells us that violent events such as the collision of massive objects such as black holes and neutron stars create ripples in the curvature of space-time.
“They’re waves, like light or any other kind of electromagnetic radiation, except here what’s ‘waving’ is space and time itself,” NASA astrophysicist Ira Thorpe explained. “You get radiation, basically light, when you move some sort of charged particle. When you’re moving masses, you get gravitational waves.”
But how can space ripple? According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, spacetime isn’t a void, but rather a four-dimensional “fabric,” which can be pushed or pulled as objects move through it. These distortions are the real cause of gravitational attraction. One famous way of visualizing this is to take a taut rubber sheet and place a heavy object on it. That object will cause the sheet to sag around it. If you place a smaller object near the first one, it will fall toward the larger object. A star exerts a pull on planets and other celestial bodies in the same manner.
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Did you know Earth also gives off gravitational waves? Earth orbits the sun, which means its direction is always changing, so it does generate gravitational waves, although extremely weak and faint.
What do we learn from these waves?
Observing gravitational waves would be a huge step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the universe, and how large-scale structures, like galaxies and galaxy clusters, are formed.
Gravitational waves can travel across the universe without being impeded by intervening dust and gas. These waves could also provide information about massive objects, such as black holes, that do not themselves emit light and would be undetectable with traditional telescopes.
Just as we need both ground-based and space-based optical telescopes, we need both kinds of gravitational wave observatories to study different wavelengths. Each type compliments the other.
Ground-based: For optical telescopes, Earth’s atmosphere prevents some wavelengths from reaching the ground and distorts the light that does.
Space-based: Telescopes in space have a clear, steady view. That said, telescopes on the ground can be much larger than anything ever launched into space, so they can capture more light from faint objects.
How does this relate to Einstein’s theory of relativity?
The direct detection of gravitational waves is the last major prediction of Einstein’s theory to be proven. Direct detection of these waves will allow scientists to test specific predictions of the theory under conditions that have not been observed to date, such as in very strong gravitational fields.
In everyday language, “theory” means something different than it does to scientists. For scientists, the word refers to a system of ideas that explains observations and experimental results through independent general principles. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity has limitations we can measure by, say, long-term observations of the motion of the planet Mercury. Einstein’s relativity theory explains these and other measurements. We recognize that Newton’s theory is incomplete when we make sufficiently sensitive measurements. This is likely also true for relativity, and gravitational waves may help us understand where it becomes incomplete.
Source : PHD Comics
- General relativity – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- NASA What are Gravitational Waves?
- Gravitational Waves: Everything You Need To Know Before Thursday’s Big Announcement
- Why Finding Gravitational Waves Would Be Such a Big Deal
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- What Are Gravitational Waves And Why Do They Matter? | Popular Science
- Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity: A Simplified Explanation
- All you need to know about gravitational waves : Nature News & Comment
- Everything you need to know about gravitational waves | Science | The Guardian
- Gravitational waves explained | Science News