Why measuring a gravitational wave is a big deal

- Before the breakthrough announcement Thursday, gravitational waves were just a theory.  But taken seriously by all scientists because it was theorized by one of the smartest men in human history; Einstein.  His theory of General Relativity has been expanding scientific minds for a century.  Technology though finally caught up to Einstein’s brain and scientists were able to prove that gravitational waves exist.  So what’s the big deal?  Why do we care?

We care for at least a couple reasons.  First off, we have proved the 4th dimension.  The dimension where space and time sort of mold and merge together, something typically talked about in science fiction novels.  It proves that there is a lot more out there that we can’t see and touch which makes just about anything in our realm possible. 

Second, we can use this new found technology to HEAR what’s in space.  Say what?  Let me explain…

This is one of the two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) located in the U.S. Image courtesy of Caltech and the University of Minnesota


So the way scientists measure these waves is with something called an interferometer, well 2 to be exact.  One is located in Washington state and the other in Louisiana.  They literally look for changes in the space/time distance by measuring all components of a wave moving through the Earth.  The gravitational wave pushes them together and apart by 1/1000th of the diameter of the nucleus of an atom… or as I like to say, an unfathomably small amount.  Then, by analyzing these changes, they can determine where the waves came from and what their source was. 

These two images show an atom and then a zoomed in picture of the middle of an atom called the nucleus.  This is the distance that gravity waves can make objects move, 1/1000th of the diameter of this object.  Image courtesy of Caltech and the University of Minnesota


So how does this allow us to hear space?  Well, it doesn’t directly, BUT the interferometers speak using different tones for different shapes, sizes, and amplitudes of the waves hitting Earth.  Scientists then analyze these tones to make their conclusions and find out all available information.

While this can’t be physically seen, it is an artist’s rendition of what 2 black holes merging might look like if we COULD see it happening.  The waves would push out and away from the merger just like ripples on a pond.  Image courtesy of Caltech and the University of Minnesota


Before February 11, 2015, we were only able to view the sky with our eyes using telescopes and satellites to peer at as many things in the galaxy as we could see.  But with this new technology, we are able to view things that aren’t visible.  It’s like adding a second sense in a world with only one.  Imagine walking around Earth without being able to hear, smell, taste, or touch anything; only see.  Well, now imagine, one day, all of a sudden, you are able to see AND hear.  This opens the door to unmeasurable possibilities.  THIS IS WHY IT’S SUCH A BIG DEAL!

We can use this new found technology to reexamine what we thought we knew about everything from black holes, to stars and supernova, maybe even the Moon or planets in our solar system as well.  We can also use it to find new phenomena that we don’t even know exists yet.  Who knows, it may eventually help us to find a faster way to space travel to get to the far reaches of the galaxy one day and find other planets like Earth.  Really, the possibilities could be endless.

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