Thanks, Einstein! Gravitational waves, 1 year later
We asked 5 physicists to share what Einstein's theory, hailed as a watershed moment in science, means to them.
The world's most famous genius made waves both literally and metaphorically a year ago this week. More than a century after Albert Einstein wrote his theory of gravitational waves, it had never actually been proved. Until Feb. 11, 2016, when a team of scientists finally confirmed his findings. The news made international headlines, and the science community called it one of the greatest discoveries of modern times.
To commemorate the anniversary, we asked some of the world's leading physicists to reflect on what Einstein's theory means to them.
Sean T. McWilliams
"Since the discovery of gravitational waves was announced, I've been blown away by how far reaching the achievement has been. It's so easy to lose perspective when you've dedicated many years to a single topic or project, so that your own sense of the magnitude of your particular scientific achievement is a far cry from the importance that other scientists, let alone the public, might place on it. This discovery has been, for me, the opposite of that experience. Everyone, from scientists in other specialties to random strangers I happen to meet, tend to state the importance of this discovery in far more emphatic terms than I ever would. Also, no matter how much I emphasize that the credit should go to the massive team of people who worked together, and that none of us individually deserves the praise that the discovery is receiving, people still want to heap effusive praise on anyone affiliated with the discovery who they can get their hands on. I think this event captured everyone's imagination like few things ever do, and serves to show the role that science can play in inspiring us."
– Sean T. McWilliams is a theoretical physicist at West Virginia University who worked on the team that made last year's discovery.
"Einstein’s theory predicted the existence of gravitational waves and black holes. Predictive power of theory is a vital underpinning of physics as is experiment. I find it amazing that the human mind, even one like Einstein’s, can formulate a theory that makes predictions that can only be verified 100 years later. I am both honored and humbled to engage in understanding the ramifications of this theory in my own work."
- Deirdre Shoemaker, Director, Center for Relativistic Astrophysics at Georgia Tech.
"In November 2015 the world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the completion of Einstein’s general theory relativity, which predicted that violent motion of matter in the universe generates waves of gravity. These waves cause the space through which they propagate, at the speed of light, to shrink and expand. It took a hundred years and the ingenuity of scientific visionaries to overcome all the difficulties and to confirm, exactly one year ago, this prediction. Every discovery bringing new understanding of the origin, structure and evolution of the universe stirs our imagination. There is now a possibility that detectors of gravitational waves will open a new window on the universe, allowing us to explore the heart of stellar explosions and reach all the way back in time to the origin – the big bang event."
– Hanoch Gutfreund, academic director, Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"Appropriately enough, Albert Einstein's views on the existence of gravitational waves oscillated over the course of his lifetime, despite the fact that they are a clear prediction of his general theory of relativity. It's understandable why Einstein might have been skeptical. After all, it's one thing for calculations on paper to indicate that the very fabric of spacetime itself can ripple like waves in a pond, but it's another thing entirely to believe in the physical reality of such a thing, let alone suppose that human beings could ever actually detect it occurring in the real world. And yet, one year ago, scientists made precisely such a direct detection. So, apparently, it really happened that billions of years ago, two black holes each with masses far greater than that of our sun were revolving around each other at nearly the speed of light. It really happened that these two black holes merged in a catastrophic collision. It really happened that a total mass three times that of our sun was converted in accordance with E=mc2 into pure energy in the form of outgoing ripples of spacetime. It really happened that this outgoing energy was emitted at a rate that briefly exceeded the total energy output of all the stars in our observable universe. It really happened that these outgoing ripples of spacetime propagated across billions of light-years until they caused kilometer-scale lasers here on Earth to shift in length by a thousandth the size of a proton. And it really happened that scientists were able to measure those tiny shifts and make the stunning announcement that so many years of their hard work had finally achieved success."
– Jacob Barandes is a physics lecturer and the associate director of graduate studies at Harvard University.
"Einstein didn't think that we could detect gravitational waves. But today, with the technology that we have, we actually did it. In September 2015, we detected gravitational waves. We measured the distortion of spacetime itself. It took more than 20 years and about a 100 scientists and engineers all over the world... The gravitational waves discovery won't impact your life or my life, but what we did is amazing. Gravitational waves open a new window on the universe."
– Lisa Barsotti is a physicist at MIT and a principal research scientist at LIGO, a laboratory dedicated to studying gravitational waves.
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