New age of astronomy begins as existence of gravitational waves confirmed

11 Feb 2016

Supernova image via NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) Acknowledgment: J. Hughes (Rutgers University)

We knew it was coming, but the news doesn’t get any better than this for astronomers as the discovery of gravitational waves has officially been accepted by the wider scientific community.

The impact of the discovery of gravitational waves for astronomy and theoretical physics is a really big deal, if you haven’t guessed from the visible excitement when discussed of those closest to the research.

First picked up by the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the discovery of gravitational waves, first formulated under Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, will turn astronomy on its head, as well as our understanding of some of the mysteries of the universe.

As wrote yesterday, until now, astronomers have been reliant on ultraviolet light and visible light to observe what makes up the known universe.

However, with gravitational waves, a new method of observation will emerge, allowing us to see how, for example, how black holes behave or how fusion works within neutron stars.

One of those involved with the LIGO team, Lawrence M Krauss, had described the inevitable announcement of its discovery as a “new era in astronomy and physics”, while NASA’s Gravitational Astrophysics Lab chief, Tuck Stebbins, said “we stand at a threshold of a revolutionary period in our understanding, our view of the universe”.

A ‘marvellous new quest’

Speaking at the announcement made at the headquarters of the National Science Foundation in the US, the executive director of LIGO, David H Reitze, beamed with joy.

“Our observation of gravitational waves accomplishes an ambitious goal set out over five decades ago to directly detect this elusive phenomenon and better understand the universe, and, fittingly, fulfils Einstein’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his General Theory of Relativity,” he said.

Adding his thoughts, LIGO’s founder, Rainer Weiss, said: “The description of this observation is beautifully described in the Einstein theory of general relativity formulated 100 years ago and comprises the first test of the theory in strong gravitation. It would have been wonderful to watch Einstein’s face had we been able to tell him.”

Perhaps the most famous person to comment on the panel, astrophysicist Kip Thorne, described the new discovery as being a “marvellous new quest” for humanity.

“With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvellous new quest: the quest to explore the warped side of the universe – objects and phenomena that are made from warped spacetime. Colliding black holes and gravitational waves are our first beautiful examples,” he said.

If you’re still lost as to what the discovery of gravitational waves means, then check out this handy video we also covered, which sums it up in around 90 seconds.

Comments from National Science Foundation to follow…

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic