Today, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO have proudly announced having detected the first faint ripples caused by gravitational waves. First predicted exactly one hundred years ago by Albert Einstein in the Theory of General Relativity, these gravitational waves, long believed to be too small to be seen, have at long last been detected.
In 1916, Einstein explained that gravitation is a distortion of space and time, as if it was a fabric that could be distorted by the presence of massive objects. An empty space would be like a taut sheet. Any object, like a ping-pong ball travelling in that space, would simply follow the surface of the sheet. Drop a heavy object on the sheet, and the fabric will be distorted. The ping-pong ball would no longer roll along a straight line but would naturally follow the curve of the distorted space.
A heavy object falling on that sheet would generate small ripples around it. Likewise, the Big Bang or collisions between black holes would also create ripples that would eventually reach the Earth.
These were the small disturbances LIGO was set to find. As explained in this excellent video, the scientists used an interferometer, that is, an apparatus with two identical arms as shown below. A laser (bottom left corner) emits a beam of light that hits a piece of glass (center). Half of the beam is reflected, half of it keeps going on. The two beams travel exactly the same distance (4 km), hit a mirror and bounce back.
A light beam is a wave, and just like waves at the surface of water, it has crests and troughs. The arms length is such that when the beams return and overlap again, the two sets of waves are shifted with respect to each other, such that they cancel each other out. Hence, a detector placed at the bottom right corner would see no light at all.
Now imagine that a gravitational wave, produced by the collisions of two black holes for example, sweeps across the interferometer. The fabric of space would be stretched then compressed as the wave passes through. And so the length of the arms would change, shifting the pattern of crests and troughs. The two beams would no longer cancel each other. A light-sensitive detector would now detect some light that would pulsate as the gravitational wave sweeps across the apparatus.
The challenge is that any vibration caused by waves crashing on the shore, earthquakes, or even heavy traffic would disturb such an experiment by producing similar effects. So the laser beams travel in vacuum and the mirrors are mounted on shock-absorbing springs and suspended on fine wires to dampen any vibration by a factor of 10 billion.
To ensure a signal really comes from a gravitational wave and not from some other disturbance, LIGO used two identical laboratories located more than 3000 km apart in the USA, one in Louisiana, one in Washington State.
And here is the signal generated when two black holes, 50 km in diameter but 30 times more massive than the Sun, merged. This collision sent a gravitational wave that traveled for about a billion year before reaching the Earth on 14 September 2015. This wave changed the length of the 4-km arms by one thousandth of the size of a proton. A tiny ripple that lasted a mere 20 milliseconds, accelerating quickly before disappearing, exactly as General Relativity predicted.
So when both instruments detected the same signal, the coincidence between the two left no doubt. It really was from gravitational waves. So far, the LIGO experiment only detected the classical part of these waves. We still do not know if gravitational waves are quantized or not, that is, if they come with a particle called the graviton.
For centuries, astronomers have used electromagnetic waves such as light to explore the Universe. Gravitational waves will provide a new tool to study it even further. Other experiments such as BICEP2 are already looking for the ripples left over from the Big Bang. What we will learn from these waves will be well worth the hundred-year long wait from their prediction to their discovery.
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The LIGO interferometer in Hanford, Washington State, USA, with its 4km-long arms. ©NASA