Science finally detects Einstein's gravitational waves

A computer simulation shows the collision of two black holes, a tremendously powerful event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. LIGO detected gravitational waves, or ripples in space and time generated as the black holes spiraled in toward each other, collided, and merged. This simulation shows how the merger would appear to our eyes if we could somehow travel in a spaceship for a closer look. It was created by solving equations from Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity using the LIGO data. caltech (via YouTube)

In an announcement that electrified the world of astronomy, scientists said Thursday that they have finally detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.

Scientists likened the breakthrough to the moment Galileo took up a telescope to look at the planets.

The discovery of these waves, created by violent collisions in the universe, excites astronomers because it opens the door to a new way of observing the cosmos. For them, it's like turning a silent movie into a talkie because these waves are the soundtrack of the cosmos.

"Until this moment we had our eyes on the sky and we couldn't hear the music," said Columbia University astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka, a member of the discovery team. "The skies will never be the same."

An all-star international team of astrophysicists used a newly upgraded and excruciatingly sensitive $1.1 billion instrument known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, to detect a gravitational wave from the distant crash of two black holes, one of the ways these ripples are created.

The team included a number of scientists at Southern California institutions, including Caltech, Cal State Fullerton and USC's Information Sciences Institute.

"We really think this is the last major prediction of the Einstein's general theory of relativity that has not yet been confirmed. It has now been confirmed — Einstein was right," said Alan Weinstein, professor of physics at Caltech.

Some physicists said this is as big a deal as the 2012 discovery of the subatomic Higgs boson, sometimes called the "God particle." Some said this is bigger.

"It's really comparable only to Galileo taking up the telescope and looking at the planets," said Penn State physics theorist Abhay Ashtekar, who wasn't part of the discovery team. "Our understanding of the heavens changed dramatically."

Gravitational waves, first theorized by Albert Einstein in 1916 as part of his theory of general relativity, are extraordinarily faint ripples in space-time, the hard-to-fathom fourth dimension that combines time with the familiar up, down, left and right. When massive but compact objects like black holes or neutron stars collide, their gravity sends ripples across the universe.

The event detected by LIGO occurred more than a billion light years away, which means it took as many years for the ripples to reach Earth, Weinstein told KPCC's AirTalk.

"A billion years ago, our solar system was fully formed — in fact, our sun is about 4 or 5 billion years old. But life was still in its infancy. The very first cellular, bits of cellular life, were just starting to form," he said.

Scientists found indirect proof of the existence of the gravitational waves in the 1970s — computations that showed they ever so slightly changed the orbits of two colliding stars — and the work was honored as part of the 1993 Nobel Prize in physics. But Thursday's announcement was a direct detection of a gravitational wave.

And that's considered a big difference.

"It's one thing to know sound waves exist, but it's another to actually hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony," said Marc Kamionkowsi, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University who wasn't part of the discovery team. "In this case we're actually getting to hear black holes merging."

Gravitational waves are the "soundtrack of the universe," said team member Chad Hanna of Pennsylvania State University.

Detecting gravitational waves is so difficult that when Einstein first theorized about them, he figured scientists would never be able to hear them. Einstein later doubted himself and even questioned in the 1930s whether they really do exist, but by the 1960s scientists had concluded they probably do, Ashtekar said.

In 1979, the National Science Foundation decided to give money to the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to come up with a way to detect the waves.

Twenty years later, they started building two LIGO detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and they were turned on in 2001. But after years with no luck, scientists realized they had to build a more advanced detection system, which was turned on last September.

The new LIGO in some frequencies is three times more sensitive than the old one and is able to detect ripples at lower frequencies that the old one couldn't. And more upgrades are planned.

Sensitivity is crucial because the stretching and squeezing of space-time by these gravitational waves is incredibly tiny. Essentially, LIGO detects waves that stretch and squeeze the entire Milky Way galaxy "by the width of your thumb," Hanna said.

Increasing the sensitivity further will mean even more events can be observed, and quantity is critical for astronomers trying to understand the evolution of stars, Weistein said. 

"For the most part, you can't really watch stars evolve, but you can look at populations of many many stars, and infer their history, their formation scenarios, how they evolve, and how they evolve in the future, and what will happen millions, billions of years later, by just looking at many, many different stars in different stages of their lives," he said.

Each LIGO has two giant perpendicular arms more than two miles long. A laser beam is split and travels both arms, bouncing off mirrors to return to the arms' intersection. Gravitational waves stretch the arms to create an incredibly tiny mismatch — smaller than a subatomic particle — and LIGO detects that.

"We are fairly certain that we will find more and more signals," Marka said. "This is just a start."

The foundation produced a short documentary on LIGO, which you can watch here:

And Caltech produced this video tracking the timeline of LIGO from idea to gravitational wave detection:

For more on the science, check out these two videos from Caltech:

This story has been updated.