More gravitational waves detected

The first detection of gravitational waves was in November 2015, a century after Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted their existence. It was a discovery of such importance that the Nobel prize for physics was awarded for it soon after in 2017. But since then there have been a flurry of such waves that are caused by the collisions of massive stellar objects.

Scientists have identified four more ghostly signals of massive collisions in outer space, including of the largest to date, bringing their total haul of gravitational-wave detections to 11 in just a few years.

A team of researchers affiliated with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in the U.S. and its European counterpart Virgo unveiled the four new detections on Saturday (Dec. 1) at a scientific meeting.

Gravitational waves are often described as “ripples in space-time” and are produced by pairs of black holes or neutron stars—which are two forms of extremely massive, dense remnants created when a star explodes. Pairs of these objects orbit each other, drawing ever closer to one another and causing gravitational waves to ripple outward as they do so, until they eventually collide.

The newly announced gravitational-wave observations weren’t found in new data—in fact, both LIGO and Virgo have been down for upgrades since August 2017.

Instead, the new detections were found on another look through data gathered during the observing run that took place between Nov. 30 and Aug. 25, 2017. Scientists had already published three black hole mergers observed during that time frame, as well as the sole binary neutron star collision discovered to date.

It is strange to think that such a major discovery has become somewhat routine in just a few years. But that is often how science is. As has been said, yesterday’s major discovery is today’s background.


  1. Peter B says

    “Yesterday’s Nobel Prize is tomorrow’s homework”.

    I would give credit if I could find the source.

  2. Michael Sternberg says

    As has been said, yesterday’s major discovery is today’s background.

    I heard about a related phenomenon where several preliminary discoveries in a field get the big press, only for the one that carries no asterisks to lose its punch. Examples:
    * Water on Mars
    * Earthlike exoplanet
    * Alien life (not yet, I think)
    * Voyager leaves the solar system

  3. says

    Is the LIGO the most precise thing that humans have ever built? I suppose it makes GPS look like flint knives and bearskins.

    I suppose if you had a big enough platform, you could use a LIGO to navigate, by panning across known supermassive black holes. I realize that wouldn’t be a gravity wave detector so much as an ultra-sensitive gravitometer. Oh, it’s my fictional universe so I get to call it what I want.

  4. consciousness razor says

    Is the LIGO the most precise thing that humans have ever built?

    Well, I don’t know … comparing measurements of different types of quantities (distances, frequencies, masses, etc.) isn’t too straightforward. Physics seems like the obvious place to look, but I’d wonder about Google or other computer-related things — they’ve definitely got some huge data sets to play around with, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s some boring thing involved in their poor man’s version of the Library of Babel.
    If you’re going to insist on it being an instrument of some kind, which people have “built,” not what we’ve been able to observe or calculate or whatever, then you might think that’s a somewhat arbitrary distinction. I’m not really sure what to think, but it gets a little tricky, conceptually. For example, we can calculate pi to an absurdly large number of digits, and you might have the attitude that this is a thing people have invented (or built, as it were) and have continued to refine over the years — well past the point of usefulness, but they do it anyway. On the other hand, how precise are we about the number 42? It doesn’t exactly seem like the right question, but if I had to say something, it would be that there’s no imprecision involved at all. (Or you could say it’s “infinite precision” if that means anything … we know that you should just keep adding zeros after the decimal point, for as long as it suits you. Or nines, if you prefer 41.999… Or something else I suppose, if you don’t like base 10.)

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