The Discovery of Gravitational Waves: What Does This Mean?

First Published: March 19, 2016 Last updated: March 10th, 2019 Written by: Ian Stephens Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes Posted in: Space

As you might have seen in the news recently, we’ve finally made one of the major breakthroughs that scientific minds and the like have been waiting for; we’ve discovered gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are one of the most interesting theories in science and have been for some time, creating what many people thought of as the ‘next level’ for scientific discovery and improvement.

Gravitational Waves

However, the discovery of gravitational waves is sending shockwaves through the scientific community as we’ve finally cracked the code! It’s now official – we live in a Universe which is loaded with gravitational waves. The announcement, made at the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, was rumoured to be on its way for a short period of time, but was eventually made on 11th February, has finally made sure that a am factor of Einstein’s General Relativity theory was proven correct.

Now we know that not only was the old master spot on with his analysis, but that he has successfully called the next part of our scientific trajectory.

This major historic discovery, though, still confuses plenty of people – it’s a subject that certainly is quite hard to get your head around. To help those who don’t know what the significance of the discovery means, this will hopefully help you understand what these waves are why this matters.

Don’t worry, we’ll try and be short on the scientific jargon – this is the kind of subject that for entry-level minds into this kind of subject can be quite mind-blowing. Hopefully you’ll find that this is a bit easier to get your head around.

What are Gravitational Waves?

Gravitational waves are part of the Theory of General Relativity, created by Albert Einstein in 1915. In this theory, gravity is treated differently to how we imagined and this results in space-time become “curved”. This curvature exists purely because of the existence of mass, with the idea being that the more mass is contained in a part of space then the greater the curve will be in that particular volume of space.

As objects move around in the space-time fragments, the curve has to change and alter to reflect the changed locations of these specific objects. In a specific set of circumstances, then, the objects can accelerate and eventually change the curvature itself. They will then propagate outwards at the speed of light, using a wave-life manoeuvre. This is what is known as gravitational waves.

Still sound weird? Well, here’s the real part that seems to throw everyone – when these pass by an observer, you’ll literally see the strain on space-time occur. The distance between two objects can then change entirely as the wave is passing, regardless of the fact that the free objects were never a part of the actual wave.

So, what does this mean? Basically, waves can reach parts of space that a normal electromagnetic wave could simply never reach. This means that, hopefully, we would eventually be able to see the merging of black holes and other major universal objects – today, we can’t spot these things at all so it’s hoped that this would finally give us an insight into something as insane as this. It might even give cosmologists the chance to look at the earliest parts of the universe – basically, it might be the key that we need to finally start finding out a bit more about the real truth of how we got here.

Sources of Waves

The sources of waves can be the hardest thing to work out and understand for a ‘layman’ but it actually becomes quite simple to understand thanks to this discovery. Gravitational waves are effectively waves which are radiated by objects whereby they were accelerating so long as it’s not a spinning or expanding disk or sphere shape.

In the case of two planets being in orbit towards one another, then, the creation of gravitational waves is very much possible. The greater the weight, the heavier it tumbles and thus the greater the radiation levels emitted from the object itself. One of the most common examples of the sources of a wave would be a supernova, for example, if a supernova was to occur then it would most certainly create the radiance of gravitational waves in massive numbers. However, this would be stopped if the explosion was symmetric – although the chances of this happening are exceptionally slim.

Another common example of the source of a gravitational wave would be a planet that has things like bumps or dimples on its equator, will create this kind of gravitational wave. Basically, anything that is not a purely symmetric shape and has the capacity to move at the needed speeds etc. can be the cause of a gravitational wave.

This is a major discovery, then, as many of the ideas of what we thought would be capable of causing gravitational waves to occur can now be confirmed. Since we know now that it does exist and there is no denying it, its’ very easy to see how this could be shaped to fit with all of the older theories. But what does this mean for the behaviour of the gravitational wave itself? Is there anything that can be read from that in this discovery?

Black hole with Event Horizon

Wave Behaviour

The effects of a wave actually passing by is something that we need to get our heads around as soon as possible, as it’s one of the major discoveries that has been made in our time. Since gravitational waves are something we can now confirm as regularly passing by our planet, we can also confirm where the source may be coming from. In the past we just had an idea that we were being hit by the tail-end of gravitational waves and that the effects of such an event were minimal.

Outside of the most sophisticated equipment and the smartest minds involved, though, we could never actually pick these up for ourselves. We’ll never, as people, feel the genuine force of a gravitational wave hitting the planet.

When a gravitational wave passes through a range of particles in a perpendicular shape to the plane of the particles such as your own line of vision to the objects, the particles will then follow the distortion created by the wave.

However, the other major characteristics to look out for when using something like this comes from the four major factors we know which are affected by waves;

  • Amplitude – h is the size of the wave itself.
  • Frequency – f is the frequency of the wave oscillating.
  • Wavelengths – λ is the distance along the wave where the maximum points of stretch/squeeze occur.
  • Speed – The speed at which the point of the wave is travelling. Typically, for a gravitational wave with small levels of amplitude, this is the speed of light.

A poor physics lesson aside, you can quickly see that the effect of these waves can now finally be calculated and understood – this is a major factor in the overall change that could be about to occur within any discoveries in the coming years.

Detection of Gravitational Waves

How are the experts going to start detecting these gravitational waves, then? Well, the first term is known as indirect detection. Basically, experts can look and find that whilst the waves from the Earth and the Sun are fairly minuscule, other elements exist whereby their gravitational waves are simply enormous.

The most common example of this is probably the Hulse-Taylor binary, a set of stars where one is a pulsar. The pulsar gives off a Doppler shifting of radio signals at all times. Together, these stars give off something in the region of 1022 times as much as our system does!

However, this does not mean that these are an easily detectable source even with the latest breakthrough and discovery. When they do reach the air they tend to have reached levels of something in the region of 10-21 which means they need to use some very sensitive detectors to pick it up.

Even other sources can be enough to overwhelm these minor signals and make it impossible to put across in the right manner.

This has led to the creation of a range of high-end ground-based detectors that can do a good job of picking them up. This is a direct measurement, as opposed to the indirect detection spoken of above. These direct levels of detection are complicated, though, by the minimal effect that using these waves has on our own planet.

Therefore it can be hard for the detectors to get enough of a reading – even when major events such as black holes merging were to occur, by the time they reach us here at Earth the chances are that they would have died out somewhat.

This is why this matters so much – with multiple forms of discovery out there proving to have limited success, the work of the LIGO collaboration changes everything. They detected a signal which was more than fifty times the power of all observable universes combined!

The signal increased from 35-250Hz in no time at all, and the mass of the new black hole which has combined was in the region of 62 solar masses. Roughly three solar masses worth of energy alone was emitted as gravitational waves. The signal itself came from the Celestial Hemisphere in the South, and marked the occasion that we finally found a way of picking up gravitational waves that were far more than the original ways of detection were capable of.

The Human Element

Now that we know what this all means in terms of the scientific hoo-hah (as best as we can explain it!) you’ll find that the actual human element can finally be seen. LIGO had actually born witness to the combining of two black holes more than 1.3 billion years ago. Not only did the energy and gravitational waves produced fit with our own theoretical models in science so much, they simply shared any idea that it could have been something else.

Whilst they have always been there, we can now confirm that they exist; for a human technological and scientific standpoint, this is amazing. We can now start to look for new cosmic signals that otherwise would have been totally undetectable and foreign to us – we are literally about to enter the next stage of astronomy. If this was a video game, it would pop up and say “Mission Complete” at the LIGO facility!

This has finally changed the position we hold as a species, and whilst the impact may not be felt today it will be felt in the centuries to come. We can now finally confirm that the biggest discovery of our time has been completed – this is up there with when we discovered radio waves right through to when we found the universe was growing!

Basically, if you have been wondering “so what?” about this discovery, you’ll now know why. It has been the work of scientists to first prove that they exist – now, they can show us why they even matter. We now have a tool to start looking into a part of the universe that, at one stage, we couldn’t even confirm exists. From a development of our species and what we can find in the universe, this is marks as one of our brightest days.

We’ll be able to reveal new kinds of physics from this discovery as well as look into phenomena that has since been shelved du to limitations. Within the new few decades, we should see a rapid improvement in the speed that space breakthroughs are made. We can now actually detect these waves properly, allowing us to find instruments in space and time which are emitting amazing levels of energy; like a black hole.

More importantly, though, this proved that the previous theories and ideas were right. This now provides us with solid evidence that black holes do exist – short of sending someone through now, we can confirm they are real.

Wave detection

What’s The Benefit?

Well, the benefit outside of knowing what’s “really” out there is that we can now understand that the event was also the factor of some rather major luck along the way. The LIGO system has been running since 2002 and that even after many years of study and strengthening, it wasn’t strong enough. In 2010, they decided to take it offline and work on it further to make it more powerful. In September 2015, the “New” LIGO was born.

Indeed, within days of the upgrades, a major discovery was made – we found a major gravitational wave rippling through Earth that they could actually read. It just goes to show that you get what you pay for, right?

However, the other benefit is that whilst the landmark black hole merger was something special to finally witness, it’s now confirmed that they happen more often than an advert break on the TV. Every fifteen minutes, this kind of amazing merger takes on a new form and occurs – however, this specific merger was at the right place and the right time, creating a fresh new range of results.

Lucky it might have been, but the vast majority of scientific studies are “lucky”; in that they spent all those years looking for the result that it finally landed. One thing it is, though, is an immensely impressive period of time that has more or less changed how we view space.

Opening New Windows

It has opened up a whole new layer of opportunity – for us all. The fact that this is some big major discovery is clear for all to see – but what is it going to mean in the future? Does it really play any kind of major factor in the growth or change of humanity?

Well, for one, it shows us how fast we are moving as a species. A century ago Einstein would have laughed off the chance of this being possible; it was always supposed to be something that the next generations would have the potential to tap into.

Given the major importance of General Relativity, though, this plays a major role in shaping how we will see scientific progression for years to come. It formed a major part of 20th Century scientific development and also made us much more aware of the power of reality. From the power of gravitational lensing to seeing the universe expand, we’ve already witnessed numerous amazing events come from General Relativity.

This, though? This is the biggest.

With huge chunks of today’s technology using general relativity at the very basis of their development – satellites would be nowhere near as powerful without time dilation, a major factor of General Relativity, for example – it’s easy to see why this is such a major discovery. This only further validates the discoveries of Einstein and what he knew was true.

The idea is that, hopefully, they can start to use black holes across the universe as a “lighthouse” of sorts – allowing them to see further in to the universe than ever. They hope to use this to learn information such as the rate of expansion of the universe, the levels of dark energy universally or just making sure that space discoveries to immense levels of precision is all going to be possible. Whilst the actual usage of everyday effectiveness from this discovery is still limited to the world that most of us will never be involved in, in time that will change.

Many of the ideas that Einstein came up with in the past were not seen as something that would affect our day-to-day living; well General Relativity plays a major factor in just about everything we know of today. It’s likely that, in time, this will have the same seismic impact on science and technology.

Einstein Was Right!

Albert EinsteinThis is also the clearest ever signal that the great genius, Albert Einstein, was actually right. He knew his stuff, alright!

The gravitational waves he always spoke of are there for all to see now and this is made even easier to understand thanks to the fact that this cosmic event witnessed unleashed a peak power more than 50x the output of every star in the universe put together. This high-frequency “chirp” was caught by LIGO and helped to prove that the theory of Einstein was built upon fact.

With two observing stations managing to grab all the information needed – one in Louisiana, one in Washington – the wave signal was confirmed after both locations received it. This ruled out the chance of a false positive and thus proved Einstein knew what he was talking about, after all!

Eventually the signals were found to have matched up and via triangulation it was possible to see that they all had a match after all. The signal was supposed to have come from the Southern Hemisphere skies.

Whilst we are still trying to work out the major impacts of what this all means, it’s safe to say that it will have a major and lasting effect on science as we know it. It’s going to continue to change and improve continuously as time goes on, and this could have been the beginning of a new era of space discovery and learning, together.

About Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens is an editor and writer for UFO Insight. He has a keen interest in the fields of strange phenomena, UFOs and aliens. He is also interested in space, physics and science in general. Writing for over 10 years in these fields, Ian has a lot of experience and knowledge to share.

You can contact Ian via email.

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