Surf's up!

Gravitational waves.  First hypothesized by Einstein as part of his General Relativity Theory 100 years ago, Einstein also thought that we would never observe them.  Well, looks like we have, and the circumstances should add to our sense of wonder of the Universe.

Gravitational waves don't look like water waves.  Instead, gravitiational waves compress and expand space itself just a little bit.  We get squeezed and released.  How much?  Well, the detectors built in Washington and Louisiana ara capable of measuring a distance with a precision of less than one ten-thousandth the width of a proton.  It's equivalent to measuring the distance from Earth to the nearest star (28,000,000,000,000 miles) with a margin of error the size of a human hair.  That's not a lot, and they needed that precision to detect them.  Gravitational waves are unlikely to help constipation.  Not enough squeeze.

The waves scientists detected come from two massive black holes that are colliding in a galaxy a billion light years away.  Remember what a black hole is?  It's what's left when a really big star explodes.  The matter in the core collapses to where the its gravity is so powerful that even light cannot escape it, and everyhting that gets within its pull is sucked in.  

One black hole is 36 times the mass of our sun.  The other is 29 times bigger.  The combined black hole is 62 times the mass of our sun.  Wait a minute! The arithmetic would imply that the combined black hole would be 65 times the mass of the sun.  What happened to the other 3 solar masses?  They were converted into energy.  Remember E=mc(squared)?  That's the formula for converting mass to energy.  3 solar masses were converted into energy in an instant.

3 solar masses into energy in an instant?  Our sun creates 10 billion hydrogen bombs worth of energy every second, and will do so for ten billion years.  Take three of our suns, and convert them all into energy in one-fifth of a second.  That energy was produced in the form of gravitational waves.  That is more than all of the enrgy emitted by all of the stars in all of the galaxies in the Universe combined. All of them.  More.

One of the lead scientists on the project to detect gravitational waves is Kip Thorne.  He wrote the original ideas for the movie "Interstellar," and is one of our premiere astrophysicists.  Cool guy.  The detector is newly-completed, and only within the last little while calibrated.  After calibration, they turned it on for real, and almost immediately detected these waves.  Luck?  who cares.

Scientists are comparing the detection of gravitational waves to the biggest atronomical discoveries in history.  This, dear friends, is a very big deal.  It opens up a new avenue of research - beyond visual astronomy and radio astronomy, we can now look for other instances of gravitational waves.  They allow us to see all the way back to the Big Bang, and possibly understand how it all came about.

When Einstein was young, physicists thought they had it all figured out, and there were only a few t's to cross and i's to dot.  Einstein had different ideas.  With the discovery of the Higgs Boson in 2012, scientists were disappointed because the quantum model of the Universe was basicall complete, and it all conformed to their ideas and theories.  From what I read, nobody's disappointed anymore.

Feb. 15, 2016

Ain't the Universe grand?