Gravitational Waves, Ripples In Time And Space

3 US scientists have won the Nobel Prize for discovering gravitational waves, subtle waves of energy that have a profound effect on time and space, and will help astronomers find out more about the universe.

By Hugh Finlay

The 2017 Nobel Prize was won by 3 scientists, Barry Barish, Rainer Weiss, and Kip Thorne, for detecting subtle energy waves called gravitational waves.

The gravitational waves detected were from two black holes crashing together, forming a larger black hole. The waves, which are much smaller than an atom, were detected by laser sensors in an interferometer, and then converted into sound, for the scientists to listen to.

Gravitational waves are very different from other waves such as electromagnetic waves (light, radio waves, X-rays, or infra-red light). With this discovery astronomers will be able to detect things about distant parts of the cosmos, that were previously hard to detect with just electromagnetic waves.

A Breakthrough For Science

This marks the culmination of 50 years of research by scientists, who were looking for these waves, predicted by Einstein to exist.

One of the 3 prize winners said "There are a huge amount of the universe that radiate gravitational waves. The black holes are the most obvious but there are many, many others." 

Another astronomer, Alberto Vecchio of Birmingham University Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, put it, "This is just the beginning of a new roller-coaster exploration of the universe."

One of the Americans who won the Nobel prize explained the significance of the discovery, "It's a win for the human race as a whole. These gravitational waves will be powerful ways for the human race to explore the universe."

Ariel Goobar, a member of the Swedish Academy said of it, "The best comparison is when Galileo discovered the telescope, which allowed us to see that Jupiter had moons. And all of a sudden, we discovered that the universe was much vaster than we used to think about."

The Power Of Gravitational Waves

These waves are so subtle they pass through everything - no wonder it took a long time to notice them! 

Gravitational waves come from the most powerful effects in the universe, such as the collision of very solid masses like black holes or neutron stars, and these waves squeeze and stretch space and time (as Einstein said that gravity stretches time and space).

Said Kip Thorne "They are ripples that stretch and squeeze space and everything that lives in space." Two black holes colliding produces "a storm in the fabric of space-time...vortices of twisting space fighting with each other."

Rainer Weiss expects that exploring the universe through listening to gravitational waves will tell us about "the very moment when the universe came out of nothingness." He said "We expect surprises. There has to be surprises."

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