The announcement of the discovery of ripples in the fabric of spacetime made waves (obligatory pun) two weeks ago. If you still don’t know why everyone is so excited about it, let theoretical physicist Kip Thorne help. He and a panel of LIGO scientists descended on Caltech last night to share the history of the project and talk about what it was like to discover gravitational waves. Here are a few standout factoids from the event that even a largely indifferent layperson can get stoked on.
1. Kip Thorne calls this his biggest contribution to science
You know him as the author of Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy and as the guy who made sure the science depicted in Interstellar held up. He was one of the founders of LIGO, but he deflects praise to the team of over 1,000 physicists who worked to enable this discovery.
2. We’ve never seen black holes converge—until now
We predicted it, Thorne says, and now we’ve actually seen (or rather, heard) it, by way of intercepted gravitational waves. Two black holes, each about 30 times the mass of our sun—but no bigger in size than Southern California—smashed into each other at half the speed of light and combined into one monster black hole.
3. Einstein predicted gravitational waves in 1915, and LIGO discovered them in September of 2015, exactly 100 years later
Who doesn’t love a good “I told you so”?
4. The LIGO team really scienced the shit out of this one
Never mind how the whole LIGO setup works, just think about this: The mirrors that bounce infrared lasers within the system are so reflective, only one company in the world agreed to even try make them. And the glass they’re made of is “so pure, almost no one knows how to measure how pure it is,” according to professor of physics Rana Adhikari. The LIGO sensors are so delicate that, literally, “the noise of emptiness is getting into our system,” he added, referring to the electromagnetic fields that exist in empty space.
5. It’s an excuse to use the phrase “ripples in the fabric of space-time” outside of the context of Doctor Who
“Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey ” not so much.
6. We’re talking actual ripples in the fabric of space-time, people
That’s crazy talk! But it’s not. It’s science.
7. It gives us a peek into what happened at the beginning of the universe
The collision occurred 1.3 billion light years away, and in observing it, we’re looking 1.3 billion years into the past. According to Adhikari, that means “we can find out exactly what was going on in the early universe.”
8. The technology that detected the waves can further be used to help find “cosmic gold mines”
We kid you not, that phrase came out of assistant professor of astronomy Mansi Kasliwal’s mouth. Because get this: We don’t actually know for sure where gold comes from. Same goes for platinum. Scientists surmise that heavy elements originate from the collision of neutron stars, and LIGO will enable us to further test that theory by examining those collisions in more detail. In the words of Kasliwal, “Caltech is ready and the 21st Century gold rush has just begun.”