Well folks, they did it. LIGO has detected gravitational waves!
What’s a gravitational wave?
Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time. As Einstein figured out a century ago, masses bend space and time, which causes gravity. Wiggle masses in the right way and you get a gravity wave, like a ripple on a pond.
Ok, but what is actually rippling? It’s some stuff, right? Dust or something?
In a word, no. Not everything has to be “stuff”. Energy isn’t “stuff”, and space-time isn’t either, but space-time is really what vibrates when a gravitational wave passes by. Distances themselves are changing, in a way that is described by the same math and physics as a ripple in a pond.
LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. In simple terms, it’s an observatory (or rather, a pair of observatories in Washington and Louisiana) that can detect gravitational waves. It does this using beams of laser light four kilometers long. Gravitational waves change the length of these beams when they pass through, causing small but measurable changes in the laser light observed.
Are there other gravitational wave observatories?
Not currently in operation. LIGO originally ran from 2002 to 2010, and during that time there were other gravitational wave observatories also in operation (VIRGO in Italy and GEO600 in Germany). All of them (including LIGO) failed to detect anything, and so LIGO and VIRGO were shut down in order for them to be upgraded to more sensitive, advanced versions. Advanced LIGO went into operation first, and made the detection. VIRGO is still under construction, as is KAGRA, a detector in Japan. There are also plans for a detector in India.
Other sorts of experiments can detect gravitational waves on different scales. eLISA is a planned space-based gravitational wave observatory, while Pulsar Timing Arrays could use distant neutron stars as an impromptu detector.
What did they detect? What could they detect?
The gravitational waves that LIGO detected came from a pair of black holes merging. In general, gravitational waves come from a pair of masses, or one mass with an uneven and rapidly changing shape. As such, LIGO and future detectors might be able to observe binary stars, supernovas, weird-shaped neutron stars, colliding galaxies…pretty much any astrophysical event involving large things moving comparatively fast.
What does this say about string theory?
Basically nothing. There are gravity waves in string theory, sure (and they play a fairly important role), but there were gravity waves in Einstein’s general relativity. As far as I’m aware, no-one at this point seriously thought that gravitational waves didn’t exist. Nothing that LIGO observed has any bearing on the quantum properties of gravity.
But what about cosmic strings? They mentioned those in the announcement!
Cosmic strings, despite the name, aren’t a unique prediction of string theory. They’re big, string-shaped wrinkles in space and time, possible results of the rapid expansion of space during cosmic inflation. You can think of them a bit like the cracks that form in an over-inflated balloon right before it bursts.
Cosmic strings, if they exist, should produce gravitational waves. This means that in the future we may have concrete evidence of whether or not they exist. This wouldn’t say all that much about string theory: while string theory does have its own explanations for cosmic strings, it’s unclear whether it actually has unique predictions about them. It would say a lot about cosmic inflation, though, and would presumably help distinguish it from proposed alternatives. So keep your eyes open: in the next few years, gravitational wave observatories may well have something important to say about the overall history of the universe.
Why is this discovery important, though? If we already knew that gravitational waves existed, why does discovering them matter?
LIGO didn’t discover that gravitational waves exist. LIGO discovered that we can detect them.
The existence of gravitational waves is no discovery. But the fact that we now have observatories sensitive enough to detect them is huge. It opens up a whole new type of astronomy: we can now observe the universe not just by the light it sheds (and neutrinos), but through a whole new lens. And every time we get another observational tool like this, we notice new things, things we couldn’t have seen without it. It’s the dawn of a new era in astronomy, and LIGO was right to announce it with all the pomp and circumstance they could muster.
My impressions from the announcement:
Speaking of pomp and circumstance, I was impressed by just how well put-together LIGO’s announcement was.
As the US presidential election heats up, I’ve seen a few articles about the various candidates’ (well, usually Trump’s) use of the language of political propaganda. The idea is that there are certain visual symbols at political events for which people have strong associations, whether with historical events or specific ideas or the like, and that using these symbols makes propaganda more powerful.
What I haven’t seen is much discussion of a language of scientific propaganda. Still, the overwhelming impression I got from LIGO’s announcement is that it was shaped by a master in the use of such a language. They tapped in to a wide variety of powerful images: from the documentary-style interviews at the beginning, to Weiss’s tweed jacket and handmade demos, to the American flag in the background, that tied LIGO’s result to the history of scientific accomplishment.
Perimeter’s presentations tend to have a slicker look, my friends at Stony Brook are probably better at avoiding jargon. But neither is quite as good at propaganda, at saying “we are part of history” and doing so without a hitch, as the folks at LIGO have shown themselves to be with this announcement.
I was also fairly impressed that they kept this under wraps for so long. While there were leaks, I don’t think many people had a complete grasp of what was going to be announced until the week before. Somehow, LIGO made sure a collaboration of thousands was able to (mostly) keep their mouths shut!
Beyond the organizational and stylistic notes, my main thought was “What’s next?” They’ve announced the detection of one event. I’ve heard others rattle off estimates, that they should be detecting anywhere from one black hole merger per year to a few hundred. Are we going to see more events soon, or should we settle into a long wait? Could they already have detected more, with the evidence buried in their data, to be revealed by careful analysis? (The waves from this black hole merger were clear enough for them to detect them in real-time, but more subtle events might not make things so easy!) Should we be seeing more events already, and does not seeing them tell us something important about the universe?
Most of the reason I delayed my post till this week was to see if anyone had an answer to these questions. So far, I haven’t seen one, besides the “one to a few hundred” estimate mentioned. As more people weigh in and more of LIGO’s run is analyzed, it will be interesting to see where that side of the story goes.