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Breakthrough of the Century: Scientists Detect Gravitational Waves

It took 900 scientists, 10 years, and two observatories.

It took 900 scientists, 10 years, and two observatories, but gravitational waves have been detected for the first time—the most important breakthrough in modern science, many say.

Albert Einstein predicted the presence of gravitational waves in 1915 with his general theory of relativity—putting forth the idea that space and time can bend and warp. A gravitational wave would be a ripple in the fabric of space and time.


Using kilometers-long lasers at the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) facilities in Louisiana and Washington state, scientists detected two black holes colliding a billion light years away. The black holes rapidly orbited each other and finally melded together into one black hole, emitting waves. As the gravity rolled by Earth, it squeezed and compressed the detectors by a fraction of an atomic diameter. Translated into sound waves, the frequency of the waves sounds like a little chirp. The note is middle C.

All this is a big deal. “We are now entering a new age of astronomy,” said Columbia University professor and World Science Festival founder Brian Greene on WNYC. “Now we can look at the universe using waves of gravity. You cannot shield yourself from gravity … we may find things out there that don’t give off light but by waves of gravity.”

It took supercomputers to measure it, but what’s even more sublime is that Einstein conceived of this phenomenon 100 years ago and that the waves match his equation. “It’s stunning that Einstein’s equation can explain this in such exquisite detail,” Greene added.