Gravitational waves are disturbances in space-time, the very fabric of the universe, that travel at the speed of light. The waves are emitted by any mass that is changing speed or direction. The simplest example is a binary system, where a pair of stars or compact objects (like black holes) orbit their common center of mass.
We can think of gravitational effects as curvatures in space-time. Earth’s gravity is constant and produces a static curve in space-time. A gravitational wave is a curvature that moves through space-time much like a water wave moves across the surface of a lake. It is generated only when masses are speeding up, slowing down or changing direction.
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 complements 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.
Imagine Street Fighter but with history’s greatest scientists
Darwin. Hawking. Einstein. Tesla. Newton. Curie. Pythagoras of Samos. Each one has expanded our understanding of the physical world. And yet, somehow, we’ve never honored these luminaries with a 16-bit fighting game, until now.
One of the biggest mysteries in modern physics may have just been solved. The scientific community is abuzz with rumors that
physicists have finally detected gravitational waves, fluctuations in
the curvature of space-time that move at the speed of light throughout
the galaxy. Noted physicist Albert Einstein first predicted them in
1916, theorizing they might explain how mass affects the very fabric of
space-time. The discovery of the gravitational waves would be one of the biggest discoveries in physics in history
This painting of Einstein is made
entirely of tiny Marilyn Monroe portraits.
Artist Kim Dong Yoo creates images of
celebrities and world leaders out of
smaller likenesses of other famous
people, all of which are rendered
completely by hand. Source
100th Anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
One hundred years ago this month, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity (GR), one of the most important scientific achievements in the last century.
A key result of Einstein’s theory is that matter warps space-time, and thus a massive object can cause an observable bending of light from a background object. The first success of the theory was the observation, during a solar eclipse, that light from a distant background star was deflected by the predicted amount as it passed near the sun.
When Einstein developed the general theory of relativity, he was trying to improve our understanding of how the universe works. At the time, Newtonian gravity was more than sufficient for any practical gravity calculations. However, as often happens in physics, general relativity has applications that would not have been foreseen by Einstein or his contemporaries.
How many of us have used a smartphone to get directions? Or to tag our location on social media? Or to find a recommendation for a nearby restaurant? These activities depend on GPS. GPS uses radio signals from a network of satellites orbiting Earth at an altitude of 20,000 km to pinpoint the location of a GPS receiver. The accuracy of GPS positioning depends on precision in time measurements of billionths of a second. To achieve such timing precision, however, relativity must be taken into account.
Our Gravity Probe B (GP-B) mission has confirmed two key predictions derived from Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which the spacecraft was designed to test. The experiment, launched in 2004, and measured the warping of space and time around a gravitational body, and frame-dragging, the amount a spinning object pulls space and time with it as it rotates.
Scientists continue to look for cracks in the theory, testing general relativity predictions using laboratory experiments and astronomical observations. For the past century, Einstein’s theory of gravity has passed every hurdle.
A century after being proposed by physicist Albert Einstein, scientists have made the first detection of gravitational waves – massive celestial objects on the move causing spacetime itself to ripple – a historic discovery that opens up an entirely new way of studying the cosmos.
The detection was made by the twin LIGO interferometers on Sept. 14, 2015, located in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., just two days after the system was significantly upgraded to boost its sensitivity.