As Victorians awoke bleary-eyed and lethargic for what was to be the final day of the week at school, the international scientific community was still reeling from news that had just hit that morning – The announcement of the momentous discovery of gravitational waves made waves (no pun intended) across the entire world, as physicists extolled the long-awaited experimental proof of a 100 year old theory. As a large majority of the Victorian family will probably be scratching their heads as to what gravitational waves even are, I shall attempt to explain just why they’re so important.
To tell an old grandmother’s story, the history behind the study of gravitation began with Newton, as most physics students should know. As Newton formed his postulate for gravity, linking it to mass and the distance between separate bodies of mass, even he was at a loss as to what actually caused gravity.
It was not until Einstein came along that he proposed in 1916 that (this part gets a little complex so I’m going to try and simplify it) the very fabric of our universe was made up of something called the space time continuum, and that gravity was simply caused by the warping of it. To simplify matters, I shall use an analogy to describe this. Imagine a picnic mat laid on the grass, with a full basket laid on it. The basket causes an indentation on the surface of the mat, which results in objects on the mat near the basket to roll towards it. Similarly, this warping of space time continuum results in masses orbiting other larger masses.
Large bodies of mass cause significant warping of space time, akin to how objects on a flat sheet of malleable material cause indentations.
A hundred years later (last Friday), we were able to detect significant gravitational wave signals caused by 2 orbiting black holes formed 1.3 billion years ago. The merger of the 2 black holes to form an even more massive one released a colossal amount of energy, as given once again by Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence equation of E=mc2 , which was propagated (i.e. moved across space) in the form of gravitational waves. These are incredibly difficult to pick up, since a massive amount of energy is required to substantiate claims over their existence.
Despite the many false alarms over the last few decades regarding the discovery of gravitational waves, there were no mistakes this time, as the signals received from the detectors were so immense that the statistical probability of the prediction being false was 1 in 6 million. One can simply imagine the cries of relief and exhilaration by the scientists at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) when over forty years of hard work paid off, as they had been the ones to finally detect the waves. (Editor’s note: For the more scientifically inclined, a detailed explanation of how LIGO works can be found in last Friday’s copy of the Straits Times, or on their website)
“There’s definitely a nobel prize in this one,” a professor from the Leibniz University in Hannover remarked. This discovery is certainly on par with the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) a little over 2 years ago. The implications for physics is huge; over the last century, physicists have been mulling over how to resolve the many contradictions that arise between quantum mechanics and general relativity; the failure to unite gravitation as a fundamental force with the other 3 primordial forces of nature is one of the greatest conundrums of modern physics – And this discovery may have put scientists on the road to solving that.
Compared to the great cosmic events occurring far beyond our galaxy, one wonders how this can relate to life. Simply put, the resolve of scientists to put theory to the test is admirable. This discovery serves as a reminder for aspiring engineers and scientists in the Victorian family to continue dreaming big, and more importantly, to keep trying to reach your dreams, because you’ll never know when they’ll come true.
The above article is the 1st instalment in the V Press science column, as of yet unnamed. If you, dear reader, have any suggestions for a name for this column, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!