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Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein’s prediction

LIGO opens a new window on the universe with the observation of gravitational waves from colliding black holes.
The LIGO observatory has provided scientists with the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime predicted in 1915 by physicist Albert Einstein. The waves originated from the merger of distant black holes, envisioned here in a computer simulation.
The LIGO observatory has provided scientists with the first-ever direct detection of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime predicted in 1915 by physicist Albert Einstein. The waves originated from the merger of distant black holes, envisioned here in a computer simulation.
Image: SXS

The following is adapted from a press release issued today by MIT and Caltech, which jointly operate the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) with funding from the National Science Foundation.

For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

The gravitational waves were detected on Sept. 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time (09:51 UTC) by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy) and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.

Based on the observed signals, LIGO scientists estimate that the black holes for this event were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and the event took place 1.3 billion years ago. About three times the mass of the sun was converted into gravitational waves in a fraction of a second — with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe. By looking at the time of arrival of the signals — the detector in Livingston recorded the event 7 milliseconds before the detector in Hanford — scientists can say that the source was located in the Southern Hemisphere.

According to general relativity, a pair of black holes orbiting around each other lose energy through the emission of gravitational waves, causing them to gradually approach each other over billions of years, and then much more quickly in the final minutes. During the final fraction of a second, the two black holes collide into each other at nearly one-half the speed of light and form a single more massive black hole, converting a portion of the combined black holes’ mass to energy, according to Einstein’s formula E=mc2. This energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves. It is these gravitational waves that LIGO has observed.

LIGO was originally proposed as a means of detecting these gravitational waves in the 1980s by Rainer Weiss, emeritus professor of physics, from MIT; Kip Thorne, Caltech’s Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, emeritus; and Ronald Drever, emeritus professor of physics, also from Caltech.

“With this discovery, we humans are embarking on a marvelous 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,” Thorne says.

“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,” Weiss says.

“Caltech thrives on posing fundamental questions and inventing new instruments to answer them,” says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “LIGO represents an exhilarating example of how this approach can transform our knowledge of the universe. We are proud to partner with NSF and MIT and our other scientific collaborators to lead this decades-long effort.”

“The LIGO team has uncovered fresh news about the building blocks of the universe, and they have opened a whole new field of inquiry,” adds MIT president L. Rafael Reif. “The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous, and slow — and electrifying, revolutionary, and catalytic. Without basic science, our best guess never gets any better, and ‘innovation’ is tinkering around the edges. With the advance of basic science, society advances, too. We are tremendously proud of the thousands of researchers, across three generations, who made this impossible dream come true.”

“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, fulfills Einstein’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity,” says Caltech’s David H. Reitze, executive director of the LIGO Laboratory.

“This discovery is just the beginning,” says Fiona Harrison, the Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and holder of the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech. “Over the next years, LIGO will be putting general relativity to its most stringent tests ever, it will be discovering new sources of gravitational waves, and we will be using telescopes on the ground and in space to search for light emitted by these catastrophic events.”

The existence of gravitational waves was first demonstrated in the 1970s and 80s by Joseph Taylor, Jr., and colleagues. Taylor and Russell Hulse discovered in 1974 a binary system composed of a pulsar in orbit around a neutron star. Taylor and Joel M. Weisberg in 1982 found that the orbit of the pulsar was slowly shrinking over time because of the release of energy in the form of gravitational waves. For discovering the pulsar and showing that it would make possible this particular gravitational wave measurement, Hulse and Taylor were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1993.

The new LIGO discovery is the first observation of gravitational waves themselves, made by measuring the tiny disturbances the waves make to space and time as they pass through the Earth.

LIGO research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of more than 1,000 scientists from universities around the United States and in 14 other countries. More than 90 universities and research institutes in the LSC develop detector technology and analyze data; approximately 250 students are strong contributing members of the collaboration. The LSC detector network includes the LIGO interferometers and the GEO600 detector. The GEO team includes scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute, AEI), Leibniz Universität Hannover, along with partners at the University of Glasgow, Cardiff University, the University of Birmingham, other universities in the United Kingdom, and the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain.

“This detection is the beginning of a new era: The field of gravitational wave astronomy is now a reality,” says Gabriela González, LSC spokesperson and professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University.

The discovery was made possible by the enhanced capabilities of Advanced LIGO, a major upgrade that increases the sensitivity of the instruments compared with the first generation LIGO detectors, enabling a large increase in the volume of the universe probed — and the discovery of gravitational waves during its first observation run. The U.S. National Science Foundation leads in financial support for Advanced LIGO. Funding organizations in Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council, STFC), and Australia (Australian Research Council) also have made significant commitments to the project. Several of the key technologies that made Advanced LIGO so much more sensitive have been developed and tested by the German UK GEO collaboration. Significant computer resources have been contributed by the AEI Hannover Atlas Cluster, the LIGO Laboratory, Syracuse University, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Several universities designed, built, and tested key components for Advanced LIGO: The Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Florida, Stanford University, Columbia University of New York, and Louisiana State University.

“In 1992, when LIGO’s initial funding was approved, it represented the biggest investment the NSF had ever made,” says France Córdova, NSF director. “It was a big risk. But the National Science Foundation is the agency that takes these kinds of risks. We support fundamental science and engineering at a point in the road to discovery where that path is anything but clear. We fund trailblazers. It’s why the U.S. continues to be a global leader in advancing knowledge.”

“The Advanced LIGO detectors are a tour de force of science and technology, made possible by a truly exceptional international team of technicians, engineers, and scientists,” says David Shoemaker of MIT, the project leader for Advanced LIGO. “We are very proud that we finished this NSF-funded project on time and on budget, and delighted Advanced LIGO delivered its groundbreaking detection so quickly.”

At each observatory, the 2.5-mile-long L-shaped LIGO interferometer uses laser light split into two beams that travel back and forth down the arms (4-foot diameter tubes kept under a near-perfect vacuum). The beams are used to monitor the distance between mirrors precisely positioned at the ends of the arms. According to Einstein’s theory, the distance between the mirrors will change by an infinitesimal amount when a gravitational wave passes by the detector. A change in the lengths of the arms smaller than one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton (10-19 meter) can be detected.

Independent and widely separated observatories are necessary to determine the direction of the event causing the gravitational waves, and also to verify that the signals come from space and are not from some other local phenomenon.

A network of detectors will significantly help to localize the sources. The Virgo detector will be the first to join later this year.

The LIGO Laboratory also is working closely with scientists in India at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, and the Institute for Plasma to establish a third Advanced LIGO detector on the Indian subcontinent. Awaiting approval by the government of India, it could be operational early in the next decade. The additional detector will greatly improve the ability of the global detector network to localize gravitational-wave sources.

Virgo research is carried out by the Virgo Collaboration, consisting of more than 250 physicists and engineers belonging to 19 different European research groups: six from Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France; eight from the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) in Italy; two in the Netherlands with Nikhef; the Wigner RCP in Hungary; the POLGRAW group in Poland, and the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO), the laboratory hosting the Virgo detector near Pisa in Italy.

Press Mentions

Popular Science

Popular Science namesAdvanced LIGO by MIT and CalTech (2016)” as one of the 20 best tech discoveries of the last decade. “LIGO has captivated people the world over, making them curious about esoteric subjects like the nature of space and origin of, well, everything.”

New Scientist

Prof. Matthew Evans speaks with Joshua Sokol of New Scientist about the LIGO findings. “Until this detection, there was a question about the existence of binary black hole systems,” Evans explains. “So it is a pleasant surprise for us to have detected them.”


DAWN profiles Prof. Nergis Mavalvala, highlighting her work on LIGO, and what inspired her interest in physics and the hunt for gravitational waves. “Even when Nergis was a freshman, she struck me as fearless, with a refreshing can-do attitude,” says Robert Berg, a professor of physics at Wellesley College.

New Scientist

Joshua Sokol writes for New Scientist that the detection of gravitational waves will allow researchers to explore the universe’s most exotic objects. “Imagine you’re playing the movie of the universe. This is going to be the end of the silent movie era in astronomy because you have just added sound,” says Senior Research Scientist Erik Katsavounidis. 


Kendra Pierre-Louis writes for Motherboard about the work behind the LIGO team's detection of gravitational waves. Pierre-Louis explains that in the 1960s, Prof. Rainer Weiss was teaching a class on gravitational physics and “devised a method that he felt was theoretically more rigorous, using a clock and laser beams” to detect gravitational waves. 


WBUR's Bruce Gellerman speaks with Prof. Nergis Mavalvala about what the detection of gravitational waves means for the future of astronomy. “The discovery itself is spectacular, but it’s the potential for what comes next that’s even bigger,” says Mavalvala. “We are really witnessing the opening of a new way of doing astronomy.”

Boston Globe

In an article for The Boston Globe, David Abel speaks with a number of MIT researchers involved in the successful hunt for gravitational waves. “For the first time, we’ve been able to listen to the sounds that the universe has been transmitting to us from the beginning of time,” explains Prof. Nergis Mavalvala. 

CBS Boston

Professors Matthew Evans and Nergis Mavalvala speak with CBS Boston about the LIGO Scientific Collaboration’s findings.  “We heard, essentially, the largest thing that nature could produce and that means we are only barely not deaf.  We’re just starting to detect things,” says Evans.

Sky and Telescope

In an article for Sky & Telescope, Robert Naeye writes about how the first detection of gravitational waves unleashes new possibilities for observing additional events in the universe.  "This is the end of the silent-movie era in astronomy,” explains Senior Research Scientist Erik Katsavounidis.


David Shoemaker, director of MIT’s LIGO Lab, speaks with AFP about the day that the LIGO team detected gravitational waves. "It was just at the beginning of this run, when we were all ready to go…that the gravitational wave was observed," he said. "So it was a very exciting moment for us and it took us perfectly by surprise."


In an interview with WCVB’s Pam Cross, Professors Matthew Evans and Nergis Mavalvala describe the sounds of the recently detected gravitational waves.  “We can listen to things happening in the universe, and this first signal is like the first big bump in the night,” Evans says. 

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