An artist's illustration of two merging neutron stars. An artist's illustration of two merging neutron stars. An artist's illustration of two merging neutron stars. (Photo: National Science Foundation/LIGO/Sonoma State University/A. Simonnet)

Einstein's prediction leads to dawn of new era in astronomy

In global collaboration, a third of the world's physicists announce a reshaping of our understanding of the universe.

Albert Einstein may have passed away more than 60 years ago, but he continues to make waves in the scientific community. Literally.

More than a century after 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.

That was then. This is now. In various news conferences around the world on Monday, scientists announced that they had witnessed a never-before-seen event: the merger of two neutron stars from a gravitational wave. The discovery marks a revolutionary new era for astronomy that some are calling the difference between silent and talking movies. Kate Becker of PBS said the "astronomical 'Rosetta Stone' will change our understanding of the universe."

In the U.S., the National Science Foundation made the announcement at an event held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. You can watch the proceedings in the video below:

"Basically, a neutron star is a gigantic atom with the mass of the sun and the size of a city like San Francisco or Manhattan," said astronomer Ryan Foley, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

These objects are so dense, a cup of neutron star material would weigh as much as Mount Everest, and a teaspoon would weigh a billion tons. It's as dense as matter can get without collapsing into a black hole. The observations support the theory that neutron star mergers can account for all the gold in the universe, as well as about half of all the other elements heavier than iron. "We finally know where all the elements of the periodic table get made," the news site Quartz wrote.

The discovery is truly an epic global collaboration. As Dennis Overbye reported in The New York Times: "As astronomers gather for news conferences in several cities around the world, a blizzard of papers are being published, including one in The Astrophysical Journal Letters that has 4,500 authors – a third of all the professional astronomers in the world – from 910 institutions."

“I had never seen anything like it,” said Stephen Smartt, a European physicist involved with the project. “Our data, along with data from other groups, proved to everyone that this was not a supernova or a foreground variable star, but was something quite remarkable.”

These observations confirm a longstanding prediction made almost 30 years ago by a team headed by Professor Tsvi Piran at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a school Einstein helped establish in 1918. “I also remember how difficult it was to convince the scientific community of our idea: at the time it was against the standard model that was published even in freshman textbooks on astronomy," Piran recalled. "When we made this prediction in 1989, we did not expect it to be confirmed within our lifetimes. But with continued curiosity and the development of new technologies, we are able learn ever deeper truths about the nature of our universe.”

Hanoch Gutfreund is the academic director of the Albert Einstein archives at the Hebrew University. "Every discovery bringing new understanding of the origin, structure and evolution of the universe stirs our imagination," he told From The Grapevine. "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."

This is just the latest in a string of discoveries related to Einstein's work. Earlier this year, his theory of relativity taught scientists how to uncover an alien planet three times the size of Jupiter.

"The interest in Einstein does not fade into history," said Gutfreund. "If anything, the interest in Einstein increases with time. It's greater now."

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