Discovery of gravitational waves named science 'breakthrough of the year'
A scientific breakthrough earlier this year finally confirmed one of Albert Einstein's predictions after 100 years and launched an entirely new branch of science.
The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) observed gravitational waves in the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years away. This seminal achievement was thought impossible just a few years ago and represents an immediate and vast expansion of our knowledge of the universe.
What Are Gravitational Waves?
Ripples in space-time are created when an object accelerates just as a boat causes ripples in a pond. These ripples are known as gravitational waves. The concept was laid out by Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity, which states that mass distorts both space and time in the same manner that a heavy bowling bowl distorts a trampoline.
"Gravitational waves are 'ripples' in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the Universe," LIGO explained.
In 1915, Einstein predicted that cosmic collisions between massive astronomical bodies would produce ripples in space-time, and these gravitational waves would be detected from Earth.
It was not until 100 years later in February this year that this prediction was confirmed when LIGO detected waves from two black holes that produced massive amounts of energy. The black holes merged 1.3 billion light-years away and gained a mass 62 times more than that of the sun. Science magazine hailed this discovery as the scientific breakthrough of the year.
So what's the big deal? Photons of light from the distant (young) universe carry vast amounts of information; how hot a star is, how fast it's moving, its mass and composition.
Now, with the discovery of gravitational waves, we can look even farther back in time to unlock some of the most important mysteries of the cosmos:
A lot of information about the cosmos remain veiled in mystery since electromagnetic radiation, which include visible light, radio waves, infrared light, gamma rays, and X-rays that being used to study the cosmos, get scattered as they pass through space-time. A much younger universe was also opaque to electromagnetic radiation.
Gravitational waves offer researchers an entirely new way to study the cosmos. The new field of study would allow scientists to investigate objects and phenomena that were hidden from view, which could have significant impact on science and humanity.
"Scientists see the discovery as the birth of a new field: gravitational wave astronomy," Adrian Cho of Science magazine wrote. "Now, physicists are eagerly anticipating what may come next, because gravitational waves promise an entirely new way to peer into the cosmos."
Einstein's ultimate goal in creating his equations was "to know the mind of God." He was speaking metaphorically, of course, but the discovery of gravitational waves is a huge leap forward in our quest to understand the universe and our place in it.