Thursday, February 11, 2016

LIGO Detects Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes!

If you've been on social media at all today and you're either friends with or following a physicist, you've probably seen them mention something—or, perhaps, a lot of things—about gravitational waves and wondered "what the heck are they so excited about?" Rest assured, this is the most scientifically exciting discovery since the Higgs Boson (at least within the realm of the physical sciences). Today, the folks at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory) have announced the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves. Better still, those gravitational waves were produced by the merger of two black holes each roughly 30 times the mass of the Sun into a single black hole. This is also the first time we have detected such an event.

Gravitational waves are a prediction of general relativity, one of the few remaining ones that had eluded us (until last September). Gravitational waves are created as objects accelerate (their velocity changes either in direction or magnitude) in space. This is pretty much the same as the idea from Maxwell's Laws governing electromagnetism, in which accelerating charges create electromagnetic waves. The only difference is that gravitational waves specifically move through spacetime, distorting it slightly as they go.