British physicist Stephen Hawking says the detection of gravitational waves provides a completely new way of looking at the universe, and is at least as important as the detection of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider.
The results reported by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory mark the first-ever observations of a black hole merger, and the first of what’s expected to be many observations of gravitational waves. “The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionize astronomy,” Hawking told the BBC after LIGO’s announcement on Thursday.
The waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, set off in the course of gravitational interactions. Their existence was predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity a century ago, but until now, no instruments were sensitive enough to detect them. LIGO uses two sets of L-shaped detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. Each detector takes advantage of finely tuned, cross-interfering lasers to register distortions in spacetime that are tinier than one ten-thousandth of the size of a proton.
In addition to confirming a key claim of general relativity, LIGO’s readings provide the best evidence to date that black holes actually exist.
LIGO’s scientists traced the signals they saw to the merger of a black hole 29 times as massive as the sun with another black hole 36 times as massive as the sun. The resulting black hole amounted to 62 solar masses, with the equivalent of three suns converted into gravitational-wave energy.
Hawking said the findings confirm his theoretical work from decades ago, including the claim that the area of the merged black hole should be greater than the sum of the areas of black holes that were merged. Eventually, observations of a variety of black hole events could provide more precise estimates of cosmic distances, he said.
But LIGO’s observations also pose a puzzle: Hawking said the black holes that collided were each more massive than what would be expected to result from the collapse of a star. “So how did both of these black holes become so massive?” Hawking asked.
Here’s what Hawking had to say about the discovery on Facebook, plus other reactions from Twitter:
— President Obama (@POTUS44) February 11, 2016
— White House OSTP 44 (@WHOSTP44) February 12, 2016
— XKCD Comic (@xkcdComic) February 11, 2016
— NASA (@NASA) February 11, 2016
— The Cumia Show (@TheCumiaShow) February 12, 2016
— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) February 11, 2016