Science & Technology Library

Have Einstein's gravitational waves finally been found?

by Xavier Connolly - Science and Technology Editor, 11 February, 2016

Scientists are expected to announce that they have found gravitational waves, 100 years after they were predicted by Albert Einstein's General Theory of relativity. Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, said the discovery would be one of the scientific highlights of the decade, and as big a moment as when CERN announced it had found the Higgs Boson. Gravity is such a tiny force that it is difficult to detect, but under Einstein's theory, large bodies in space should make gravitational waves in space time, like ripples in a pond. On Thursday, a team from The LIGO Scientific Collaboration is expected to announce they have detected such a ripple.

The University of Birmingham has been Britain's representative in a major project to detect gravitational waves, which are ripples in space time caused by violent cosmic events. Their detection could ultimately provide a snapshot of the infant universe, when it was less than a second old. While Einstein himself thought that the waves would be too weak to detect, a century later advances in technology have brought about a revolution in precision measurements that he could not have imagined. A pair of four kilometre long detectors, located in the US, are set to be switched on for the first time in Autumn 2015, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the theory of general relativity. The project involves many universities around the world, but physicists from Birmingham built the hardware for the detectors, which was shipped to the US. A shed in Ruthe, near Hanover, contains the heart of the Anglo-German GEO600 interferometer - an instrument so sensitive it can detect an object moving one million billionth of a millimetre. The team believes it is just months away from mankind's first detection of gravitational waves - shifts in space and time caused by the movement of massive astronomical bodies. If they are correct the discovery will open up a whole new way of observing events across the cosmos, confirm Einstein's general theory of relativity and potentially give astronomers an unprecedented view of the birth of the universe 13.7 billion years ago. Colleagues across the Atlantic yesterday switched on their detector at a parallel site at Hanford in Washington state that will act in partnership with GEO600. Prof Bernard Schutz, of the University of Wales in Cardiff and a leading member of GEO600, said: "Up until now we have been able to learn a great deal about the universe by what we can see. The ability to detect and read gravitational waves will give us as much extra information about the universe as being suddenly given the ability to hear."

So is this really a breakthrough that will change our understanding of the universe or is it another of those exercises in the science of hype, that scientists will use to help them plunder taxpayers money for a few years and then quietly forget about?

"Gravitational waves, vibrations in the fabric of space itself, are a crucial and distinctive consequence of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. If you torture data enough it will always give the answer you want from it - Xavier Connolly, 2009 "This theory tells us that the force of gravity is best understood as a ‘warping’ of space itself. And when gravitating objects move, they generate a ‘ripple’ in space itself. When such a ripple passes the Earth, our local space is alternately stretched and compressed, rather as, when a stone is thrown into a pond." Scientists believe that gravity occurs when objects like planets bend space-time. It can be thought of as a giant rubber sheet with a bowling ball in the centre. Just as the ball warps the sheet, so a planet bends space time and creates gravity. In November 1915 Einstein announced his theory to the Prussian Academy of Science and later claimed that ripples in space time should be detectable if two vast bodies came together. Scientists on Thursday are expected to announce that the gravitational,waves they have spotted came from when two black holes collided. The announcement is coming from a team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. They have detectors buried deep in Washington state and 1,865 miles away in rural Louisiana. The detectors consist of a laser which is split in half and bounced off many mirrors. The theory is that if one wave comes back slightly slower than the other, it is because a gravitational wave has knocked into, slowing it down very slightly.

This statemnt is of course suspect because while Einstein declared and his followers insist the Speed of Light is the universal constant, in fact light speed is only constant at 300,000 Km per second in a vacuum. When going through other substances it varies quite a lot, slowing to the kind of speed easily achieved by an Olympic cyclist when passing through Rhodium. The speed of light through glass is 200,000 Km per second. The important point here is that 'space' is not a vacuum, it is a void, but there are all manner of gases and dust floating around out there.


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