What’s the true mark of a genius? Some say it’s an IQ over 125. Others say it’s assembling an IKEA piece without reversing a single screw or attacking a human being. Maybe it’s just having a mind like a steel trap (i.e. sharp, sensitive and ready to snap at any moment). But perhaps a more reliable and universal mark is simply being ahead of your time. (Note how our italics symbolize “being ahead” by leaning ahead of average letters – another mark of genius? Yes.) Now the most famous genius of all, Albert Einstein, has been proven to be 100 years ahead of his time. That’s because a team of more than a thousand scientists verified something he figured out a century ago.
In a landmark moment that registered as a blip with most of us but shook the scientific world to its core, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (or LIGO if you prefer cumbersome acronyms to nice, elegant 19-syllable proper names) confirmed the existence of gravitational waves. One researcher said the news was as big as the moon landing. Another said it would change astronomy the way x-rays changed medicine. Einstein, wherever he is, probably just said “About time.” It was way back in 1916 that he theorized gravitational waves existed. But it’s a “see it to believe it” world. So now, finally, somebody has actually seen it.
What’s So Great About Gravitational Waves?
Understanding what gravitational waves are and why they’re important is… let’s face it, probably something that requires a lifetime of intense study that we don’t want to do. So, within the confines of our humble blog, let’s just focus on pretending to understand what they are. We can learn to do that, right? Good. Wait, are you telling the truth or just pretending?
Anyway, let’s start with space-time.
So what is space-time?
Space-time is the three dimensions of space (you know, the ones that starred in Jurassic World 3D) combined with a fourth dimension known as The Twilight Zone. Wait, no – it’s time. Definitely time.
Cosmologists say time and space are linked together into one single fabric. And when you’re going really fast through space, time can actually slow down.
In his theory of general relativity, Einstein said massive objects like planets or stars can actually bend this fabric. As an example, scientists sometimes say you should think of time like the fabric of a trampoline. If you put a pebble on it, nothing happens.
But if you put something heavy like a bowling ball on it, the ball will stretch the fabric and make all the smaller objects nearby start rolling down towards the bowling ball. That “rolling down” effect is what we call gravity. It’s what keeps us from rising up off the ground and floating away into space, where it’s a lot harder to make a Starbucks run.
Einstein theorized that when black holes or neutron stars collide with each other. they’d be so massive, it would cause an “explosion” of gravitational waves rippling across space-time.
The Billion-Dollar LIGO Search
Scientists have been trying to directly measure these waves since the 1960s. No one could do it. Then in 2002, a pair of LIGO complexes were created in Louisiana and Washington as part of a $1-billion effort to find those dang waves once and for all. Each one shoots a laser that is split and sent down two tubes arranged like an “L.” Mirrors at the ends of both tubes send the lasers back. Normally they come back and re-meet at the exact same time. But if a gravitational wave came and hit them, the lasers would get knocked just off course and come back at slightly different times.
For 8 years, they continued on like this – shoot lasers, wait, find nothing. Repeat. Then in 2010 they finally shut the whole thing down. $1 billion, and no payoff. Crazy, right? They could’ve bought the Buffalo Bills for less with the same result.
But instead of coming to their senses, they turned around and rebuilt the LIGO sites to be even more sensitive. By last September, the new sites were finally ready. That same month, gravitational waves from a collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago finally reached Earth, creating a measurable change at the LIGO sites, which sparked strange whooping celebrations by astronomers everywhere.
It was not a case of mass astronomer hysteria (at least not completely). They were mimicking the sound the gravitational waves from a black hole collision would make – if they made sound. It’s called a “chirp.”
So there you see it. The gravitational waves came at the same time to both sites and did the same upwards “chirping” motion. But how far did that breaking wave move the lasers inside the LIGO tubes? 1 inch? 1 millimeter? Try .0001 … of the diameter of a proton. That’s like the size of a soccer ball… if the proton was the size of the Milky Way. But who cares? It moved! Scoreboard. Einstein wins! Bills lose again. Oh, and an added bonus: the LIGO measurement also confirmed the existence of black holes, which was news to us. We thought they were proven with this classic back in 1979.
The End Results
So what do the rest of us get out of this watershed moment? Are we finally about to get our own teleportation devices? A jetpack at least? The LIGO leaders say it’s nothing less than the moment Galileo first pointed his telescope at the sky – a ripple effect that leads to millions of new discoveries. But alas, no jetpacks. Yet.
Here’s the good news: we at Blackwood™ For Men are working on our own watershed moment for men. Something that harnesses the power of nature with the help of advanced technology. Something long-awaited, but also ahead of its time. A modern classic – kinda like Einstein himself.