What It Means If Gravitational Waves Were Detected

The big press conference is scheduled for 10:30am ET
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 11, 2016 6:43 AM CST
What It Means If Gravitational Waves Were Detected
This undated file photo shows legendary physicist Dr. Albert Einstein.   (AP Photo/File)

A press conference scheduled for 10:30am ET Thursday has the scientific world on the edge of its seats. The rumor/expectation/prevailing hope: that 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted their existence, the hunt for gravitational waves has led to their direct detection. In a media advisory released Monday, the National Science Foundation, which is picking up the tab for the research being discussed, said only that it was providing a "status report on the effort." The media is saying a lot more:

  • The first question tends to be "what are gravitational waves?" Put most simply, they're ripples in spacetime produced when a massive object accelerates. Most reports suggest (as Einstein did) that you visualize a pebble thrown in a pond. Discovery paints it as such: "Should two black holes collide (for example), 'ripples' in spacetime will carry energy away from the impact site at the speed of light." Those ripples also carry info about their "cataclysmic origins."
  • We like NASA astrophysicist Ira Thorpe's description for Reuters: "You get radiation, basically light, when you move some sort of charged particle. When you're moving masses, you get gravitational waves."
  • The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), a system built by MIT and Caltech researchers in the quest to detect gravitational waves, has a great explainer.

  • Tuck Stebbins, the Gravitational Astrophysics Lab Chief at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, explains to the AFP why this would be such a big deal. The upshot: "There is no other way for humanity to see the origin of the universe."
  • As for how LIGO has been trying to detect the waves, Popular Science has a good primer. One of the measurements in question is an incredible "1/10,000th the width of an atom's nucleus."
  • NPR makes the scientific personal with an astrophysicist's recounting of the decades he has spent waiting for such an annoucement.
  • As for what is stoking everyone's hopes: a recently tweeted email that included the words "Woohoo! (I hope)." And before that, this January tweet.
  • National Geographic takes a look at some of the times ("he's been vindicated too many times to list here" ) Einstein has been proven right.
  • To hear the news in real time, watch the NSF's livestream here.
(More gravitational waves stories.)

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