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Nobel Prize in Physics: Einstein Was Right!

October 6, 2017
Plain English Version

HEART OF THE MATTER An illustration of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. PHOTOGRAPH BY NRAO, AUI, NSF

Every year the Swedish Academy gives out the Nobel Prizes. The award categories include medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and economics. For example, last year they gave the prize in literature to the musician Bob Dylan! Eight years ago they gave the Nobel Prize for Peace to Barak Obama.

Usually, no one has heard of the winners. This year the Nobel Prize in Physics went to scientists in the U.S.A.

What did they do to deserve the prize? They heard and recorded the sound (a chirp) of two black holes colliding. This took place a billion light-years away from Earth. The chirp met the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. They are the result of gravitational waves. Before now, no one had ever heard one.

The Prize Committee called it “a discovery that shook the world.”

Einstein had a vision of the universe. He said space and time are interwoven and dynamic. They stretch, shrink and jiggle. His theory includes black holes. They are bottomless gravitational pits. Not even light can escape from them.

Scientists say that it took years of hard work and testing to confirm these facts. Einstein predicted them one hundred years ago.

The power of the gravitational waves is 50 times greater than that of all the stars in the universe. The waves vibrated a pair of L-shaped antennas in Washington State and Louisiana on September 14, 2016.

A scientist said, “We are all over the moon and back. Einstein would be very happy, I think.”

Astronomy has been all about eyes looking at telescopes. An expert said, “Finally, astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before. It is as though we had only seen the ocean’s surface on a calm day. But now we have seen it roiled in a storm, with crashing waves.”

The rules for space and time had prevailed since the time of Newton. Newton said the universe was fixed and static. Einstein rewrote those rules. He said matter and energy distort the geometry of the universe in the way a heavy sleeper causes a mattress to sag. They produce the effect we call gravity.

What happened on September 14, 2016, was that the sound of black holes colliding actually was heard. The event occurred 1.2 billion years ago. A scientist said, “The loudest things in the gravity-wave sky are the most exotic things in the universe. They are black holes, neutron stars, and the early universe.”

It is the beginning of a new era in understanding the dark side of the universe.

Source: The New York Times October 3, 2017

HOW IT HAPPENED!

 

I

TWO BLACK HOLES

About 1.2 billion years ago in a distant galaxy, a pair of black holes circled each other. The larger black hole was 36 times the mass of our sun, and the smaller one 29 times.

 

II

COLLISION

The intense gravity accelerated the black holes to half the speed of light, pulling them closer and carving distortions in space and time. In a fraction of a second, the pair collided and merged into an irregular shape.

 

III

RING DOWN

The unstable blob smoothed into a sphere; a process called ring down. Three solar masses’ worth of energy were vaporized in a storm of gravitational waves, distorting space and time and leaving a new black hole 62 times the mass of the sun.

V

GRAVITATIONAL WAVES

The invisible waves rippled outward at the speed of light. But waves fade with distance, and when they finally reached Earth, the distortions were too small to be measured above the heat, noise and other vibrations of our planet.

V

DETECTION

LIGO is a pair of L-shaped observatories 1,900 miles apart. Ultra-pure mirrors at the ends of each arm are isolated from vibrations. Passing gravitational waves push and pull the arms, changing the length of tunnels by less than the width of a proton.

 

VI

A CHIRP

On Sept. 14, 2016 LIGO’s detectors measured their first vibrations from a gravitational wave. Translated to sound, it was a short chirp, the billion-year-old echo of the collision of those two black holes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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