Echoes of the mind-blowingly violent collision of two black holes recently reached earth as a barely perceptible ping. But that faint signal could prove one of the most significant physics and astronomy discoveries of this century.
On Thursday, scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had observed gravitational waves for the first time.
Those waves, which are best described as ripples in space-time, complete one of the last pieces of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. The search for gravitational waves lasted about a century since they were first predicted.
That fact alone is a powerful reminder of Einstein’s awe-inspiring genius.
The waves could also help us understand the darkest and most mysterious parts of the universe, which up until now have been impossible to observe.
Gravitational waves form when objects with tremendous gravity accelerate to very high speeds, causing distortions in space time similar to the way that ripples move outward as an object pushes through water.
Those ripples travel outward through the universe at the speed of light and hold clues as to their origins, which are usually inherently unobservable phenomena such as black holes and neutron stars. Such clues could hold the keys to studying parts of the universe we haven’t even dreamed of yet.
But because gravitational waves are so complicated to observe, the experiments needed to detect them required a tremendous leap of faith in funding. The National Science Foundation spent more than $1 billion on LIGO, one of its most expensive projects ever.
That investment has officially paid off, and will continue reaping scientific rewards for years to come as researchers further explore the mysteries of gravity and dark space.
Those new discoveries are truly invaluable — as is the curiosity they inspire in minds young and old.