In one month, Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity will be a century old. Though ancient in human years, Einstein’s paradigm-shifting theory about energy, mass, space and time just got a cosmic level rush of relevance.
Last Thursday, scientists from the National Science Foundation and LIGO — the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory — announced that the last component of Einstein’s revolutionary theory had finally been confirmed. Using precision calibrated lasers and mirrors at multimillion-dollar “L-shaped” observatories specifically built for the search, scientists were able to directly observe gravitational waves rolling through the fabric of space-time for the first time last fall.
Those waves were created by the energy released by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago. The researchers believe that the two black holes each brought 30 times the mass of the Earth’s sun to the collision. The result of that cosmic pileup was a binary black hole in a concentrated space so massive it distorted the fabric of space-time around it. The two waves that scientists detected last year marked the first time that such long theorized gravitational waves could be directly observed as they passed through the Earth.
The waves were detected 17 milliseconds apart on Sept. 14 by LIGO facilities in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash. After checking and rechecking of the data to rule out alternate sources for the readings, the scientists announced that the gravitational waves Einstein’s theory predicted but could not prove had finally been observed.
It took $1 billion and decades of experiments to get to last week’s announcement. Albert Einstein himself would have been in awe of the magnitude of the achievement. Still, proving that gravitational waves exist is a baby step in mankind’s understanding of the grandeur, weirdness and mystery of the universe. If the human species is lucky, it will have many more such discoveries.