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Almost 100 years ago today, Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space-time that are set off by extremely violent, cosmic cataclysms in the early universe. With his knowledge of the universe and the technology available in 1916, Einstein assumed that such ripples would be “vanishingly small” and nearly impossible to detect. The astronomical discoveries and technological advances over the past century have changed those prospects.
Now for the first time, scientists in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration — with a prominent role played by researchers at MIT and Caltech — have directly observed the ripples of gravitational waves in an instrument on Earth. In so doing, they have again dramatically confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity and opened up a new way in which to view the universe.
But there’s more: The scientists have also decoded the gravitational wave signal and determined its source. According to their calculations, the gravitational wave is the product of a collision between two massive black holes, 1.3 billion light years away — a remarkably extreme event that has not been observed until now.
The researchers detected the signal with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) — twin detectors carefully constructed to detect incredibly tiny vibrations from passing gravitational waves. Once the researchers obtained a gravitational signal, they converted it into audio waves and listened to the sound of two black holes spiraling together, then merging into a larger single black hole.
“We’re actually hearing them go thump in the night,” says Matthew Evans, an assistant professor of physics at MIT. “We’re getting a signal which arrives at Earth, and we can put it on a speaker, and we can hear these black holes go, ‘Whoop.’ There’s a very visceral connection to this observation. You’re really listening to these things which before were somehow fantastic.”