Albert Einstein Was Right: Scientists Detect Gravitational Waves

Gravitational waves, vibrations of space and time, were predicted 100 years ago.

ByAlyssa Newcomb
February 11, 2016, 11:05 AM

— -- If Albert Einstein was alive today, he'd be saying: "I told you so."

In one of the most significant experimental findings in recent years, scientists announced today they have detected gravitational waves, vibrations of space and time, proving Einstein was right 100 years after he first predicted their existence.

David Reitze, the executive director of LIGO, the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, said the discovery is a "scientific moonshot" that many, even Einstein, believed would be difficult to detect. He said the detection would allow scientists a new window into seeing and hearing cosmic events that otherwise might not be detected.

"Up until now we have been deaf to the universe. Today, we are able to hear gravitational waves for the first time," Reitze said.

Here's a breakdown on why this is such big news for the scientific community.

What Causes Gravitational Waves

Violent events - such as when two black holes collide - are believed to create ripples in the fabric of space and time known as gravitational waves. Since gravity is a weak force, Einstein predicted it would be nearly impossible to detect these ripples, even as they passed through people and objects on Earth.

Whenever an object moves in the fabric of the universe, Einstein predicted in his Theory of General Relativity that it would create ripples the same way an object would if thrown into the water. Those ripples are what scientists announced today they're finally able to detect, giving them a microphone of sorts to now listen to the universe.

What Was Detected

The gravitational waves detected are from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. Reitze said the black holes are about 150 km (93 miles) in diameter and have about 30 times the mass of the sun. The black holes then collided at half the speed of light, he said, creating the gravitational waves that were able to be measured from LIGO's two observatories in Washington State and Louisiana.

Even Einstein didn't know if gravitational waves, which he predicted were weak, could ever be measured by people on Earth, making today's announcement huge for the scientific community.

Why This Matters

The discovery of the waves is important for the scientific community because it will open up a new way to see and hear the universe, allowing astronomers to now search and see objects we previously didn't know existed.

Scientists reported in 2014 they had detected gravitational waves using a telescope in Antarctica; however, the discovery turned out to be a false alarm after further research found the data was contaminated by cosmic dust.

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