Predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein based on his theory of general relativity, gravitational waves are ripples of spacetime caused by forceful and energetic processes in the universe. Einstein’s cutting-edge mathematics proved that massive accelerating objects (such as black holes or stars orbiting each other) would disturb space time in a way that “waves” of space would diverge from the original source. An example similar to this type of movement would be the flow of waves away from a rock thrown into pond. These waves travel at the speed of light around the universe, supplying information about their origins and gravity itself. Now that scientists have recently observed the movement of waves, Einstein’s theory is confirmed.
Einstein predicts that the place we live in is like a trampoline. Objects with bigger masses will create bigger dents in the trampoline, and this ‘dent’ is the definition of gravity. Imagine a heavy person sitting on the trampoline, causing a little dent. If you place small balls around him, the balls will fall into the dent, being attracted to the person. When the objects move (in this case, the person), it causes gravitational waves depending on the mass of the object that caused the movement.
Black holes are heavy. Two black holes are even heavier. When these two dense celestial objects collided into each other around 1.5 billion years ago, it caused a humongous gravitational wave that we were able to track in LIGO.
How could humans possibly go about detecting ripples in spacetime? After all, it doesn’t seem like detecting such abstract physical occurrences would even be feasible with our modern-day technology.
However, it sure is possible, and was done with the tech that we are well aware of and use every day: lasers. A facility called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) was constructed in two states, Louisiana and Washington to be exact, in the same manner. Each facility simply consisted of two perpendicular 2.5 mile long tunnels that met at a central building, forming an L shape. A laser was shot from the end of each tunnel to mirrors in the middle, where special equipment carefully analyzed their movements.
So what happened as a result of LIGO? Well the answer you’re looking for took nearly 1.5 billion years in the making. Just enough time, right? Through her work, Laura Cadonati found that gravitational waves caused the arms of LIGO to both stretch and squeeze, keep in mind that these “arms” are mirrors controlled by lasers that have the ability to detect changes that can take place at one in ten-thousandth the size of a proton. What does this mean? This means that within three minutes, the entire field of gravitational wave astronomy was forever changed as the wavelengths hit by these gravitational waves were made longer. This lengthening of the wavelength proved that, indeed, the pattern predicted to occur, which resulted from colliding black holes, and that gravitational waves will forever now be a new instrument to be used in unlocking the many secrets of the universe.
It’d be hard to honestly say that gravitational waves aren’t awesome. The mere thought of the existence of ripples in the fabric of spacetime gives any science fiction or science fact buff a shiver down their spine. But what does it mean? What effect will these cosmic entities have on the common person? The fact of the matter is, they won’t really have one. Not yet, anyway. As stated by Cadonati in her video, the discovery of the existence of gravitational waves is “a groundbreaking discovery that will open a new field of gravitational wave astronomy.” In a nutshell, scientists now have another path of research to follow and explore. Since we have really no idea what gravitational waves can do, there are infinite possibilities for what could come around of this research. Maybe we could discover wormholes, shortcuts through spacetime. Or maybe we could design spacecraft that could, in a sense, ride these gravitational waves for a more efficient form of travel. There’s really no way to know until we find out, but the possibilities are endless.