Our Opinion: Waves heard rippling across a vast universe


Take a break from the muck and mire of the presidential campaign and consider the wonders of the universe, the accomplishments of scientists working as a team, and the century-old brilliance of Albert Einstein.

All were on display Thursday when scientists announced the discovery of gravitational waves, confirming a prediction made by Mr. Einstein 100 years ago in his general theory of relativity. This is a landmark scientific event, one that opens up new ways of exploring the beginning and evolution of the universe, and that could lead, as so many discoveries do, to discoveries that can't be anticipated.

This discovery was heard, not seen, as is often the case in astronomy. To search for gravitational waves, scientists built two detectors, one in Louisiana, one in the state of Washington, each consisting of two tunnels 2.5 miles in length. They listened for the "sound" in the form of gravitational waves emitted from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away that produced one black hole about 62 times the mass of our sun.

At 5:51 a.m. on September 14, 2015, a sound distinctive from the background hum of the universe was detected at the Louisiana observatory. The clinching evidence arrived seven milliseconds later when the same wave signal emerged at the Washington observatory. "For for the first time, we've been able to listen to the sounds that the universe has been transmitting to us from the beginning of time," said Nergis Mavalvala, a physics professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Teams from MIT and the California Institute of Technology combined on the discovery.

The concept of black holes, created by the collapse of massive stars, colliding with such force that gravitational ripples are sent through the universe, is difficult to grasp but wonderful to consider. Albert Einstein saw them as an inevitable creation of his theory of relativity, and the gravitational waves emitted would impact space and time. Physicists, employing state-of-the-art technology that can detect infinitesimally small waves or sounds, believe they have confirmed the legendary scientist's predictions.

Dr. Mavalvala, compared the discovery of the gravitational waves to the moment silent movies added sound. More than 1,000 scientists in 15 countries played a role in the discovery, a tribute to international cooperation at the highest level of science.

The scientists predicted that more significant news about black holes, gravitational waves, and the origin of the universe should emerge in the year ahead as data is analyzed. Fans of the 2014 movie "Interstellar" know that gravitational anomalies and black holes were employed to enable exploration of the universe.

The science of that film is regarded as fundamentally sound, although we're a long way from making it reality. This week, however, we've come a long way in understanding gravity and its impact on the universe, and gained further appreciation for modern science and the incredible gifts of a legendary scientist.


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