5 Things We Know About Gravitational Waves—And 2 That Are a Mystery

An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
LIGO/T. Pyle

Gravitational waves, first detected in fall 2015 and then again a few months later, are making headlines this week following the detection of a third pair of colliding black holes. This particular duo is located a whopping 3 billion light years from Earth, making it the most distant source of gravitational waves discovered so far.

The signal from this latest black hole merger tripped the detectors at the twin LIGO facilities on January 4 of this year (the acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory). The newly created black hole—the result of this latest cosmic collision—weighs in at about 49 times the mass of the Sun, putting it in-between the two earlier black hole collisions that LIGO recorded, in terms of size. There’s now ample evidence that black holes can weigh more than 20 solar masses—a finding that challenges the traditional understanding of black hole formation. “These are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” David Shoemaker, an MIT physicist and spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration, said in a statement.

Gravitational waves are shaping up to be the hot new astronomical tool of the 21st century, offering glimpses into the universe’s darkest corners and providing insights into the workings of the cosmos that we can’t get by any other means. Here, then, are five things we know about these cosmic ripples, and a couple more things that we haven’t quite figured out yet:

1. THEY'D HAVE MADE EINSTEIN SMILE.

We knew, or at least strongly suspected, that gravitational waves existed long before their discovery in 2015. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, published just over 100 years ago. The first black hole mergers observed by LIGO produced tell-tale cosmic signatures that meshed perfectly with what Einstein’s theory predicted. But the black hole collision announced this week may yield yet another feather for Einstein’s cap. It involves something called “dispersion.” When waves of different wavelengths pass through a physical medium—like light passing through glass, for example—the rays of light diverge (this is the how a prism creates a rainbow). But Einstein’s theory says gravitational waves ought to be immune to this sort of dispersion—and this is exactly what the observations suggest, with this latest black hole merger providing the strongest confirmation so far. (This Einstein fellow was pretty bright!)

2. THEY'RE RIPPLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACE-TIME.

According to Einstein’s theory, whenever a massive object is accelerated, it creates ripples in space-time. Typically, these cosmic disturbances are too small to notice; but when the objects are massive enough—a pair of colliding black holes, for example—then the signal may be large enough to trigger a “blip” at the LIGO detectors, the pair of gravitational wave laboratories located in Louisiana and in Washington state. Even with colliding black holes, however, the ripples are mind-bogglingly small: When a gravitational wave passes by, each 2.5-mile-long arm of the L-shaped LIGO detectors gets stretched and squeezed by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

3. THEY LET US "LISTEN" TO THE UNIVERSE.

At least in a figurative sense, gravitational waves let us “listen in” on some of the universe’s most violent happenings. In fact, the way that gravitational waves work is closely analogous to sound waves or water waves. In each case, you have a disturbance in a particular medium that causes waves to spread outward, in ever-increasing circles. (Sound waves are a disturbance in the air; water waves are a disturbance in water—and in the case of gravitational waves, it’s a disturbance in the fabric of space itself.) To “hear” gravitational waves, you just have to convert the signals received by LIGO into sound waves. So what do we actually hear? In the case of colliding black holes, it’s something like a cosmic “chirp”—a kind of whooping sound that progresses quickly from low pitch to high.

4. THEY'VE SHOWN US THAT YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET TOO CLOSE TO A PAIR OF COLLIDING BLACK HOLES.

Thanks to gravitational waves, we’re learning a lot about that most mysterious of objects, the black hole. When two black holes collide, they form an even bigger black hole—but not quite as large as you’d expect from simply adding up the masses of the two original black holes. That’s because some of the mass gets converted into energy, via Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. The magnitude of the explosion is truly staggering.

As astronomer Duncan Brown told Mental Floss last June: “When a nuclear bomb explodes, you’re converting about a gram of matter—about the weight of a thumb-tack—into energy. Here, you’re converting the equivalent of the mass of the Sun into energy, in a tiny fraction of a second.” The blast could produce more energy than all the stars in the universe—for a split-second.

5. THEY MIGHT BE POWERFUL ENOUGH TO KICK A BLACK HOLE OUT OF A GALAXY.

This spring, astronomers discovered a “rogue” black hole moving speedily away from a distant galaxy known as 3C186, located some 8 billion light years from Earth. The black hole is believed to weigh as much as 1 billion Suns—which means it must have received quite a kick, to set it in motion (its speed was determined to be around 5 million miles per hour, or a bit less than 1 percent of the speed of light). Astronomers have suggested that the necessary energy may have come from gravitational waves produced by a pair of very heavy black holes that collided near the galaxy’s center.

But there’s still plenty we’d like to know about gravitational waves—and about the objects they let us probe. For example …

6. WE DON'T KNOW IF GRAVITATIONAL WAVES CONTRIBUTE TO "DARK MATTER."

Most of the mass of the universe—about 85 percent—is stuff we can’t see; astronomers call this unseen material “dark matter.” Exactly what this dark stuff is has been the subject of intense debate for decades. The leading theory is that dark matter is made up of exotic particles created soon after the big bang. But some physicists have speculated that so-called “primordial black holes”—black holes created in the first second of the universe’s existence—might make up a significant fraction of the mysterious dark matter. The theorists who back this idea say that it could help to explain the unusually high masses of the black hole binary systems that LIGO has detected so far.

7. WE DON'T KNOW IF THEY ARE EVIDENCE OF DIMENSIONS BEYOND THE ONES WE PERCEIVE.

Particle physicists and cosmologists have long speculated about the existence of “extra dimensions” beyond the four we experience (three for space and one for time). It was hoped that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider would offer hints of these dimensions, but no such evidence has turned up so far. Some physicists, however, suggest that gravitational waves might provide a clue. They speculate that gravity could freely spread out over all of the dimensions, perhaps explaining why gravity is such a weak force (it’s by far the weakest of the four known forces in nature). Further, they say that the existence of extra dimensions would leave their mark on the gravitational waves that we measure here on Earth. So, stay tuned: It’s only been a bit more than a year since we first detected gravitational waves; no doubt they have much more to tell us about our universe.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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8-Year-Old Twinkies Intrigue Fungus Experts

Photog Bill, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Photog Bill, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An 8-year-old box of Twinkies has disproved the myth that the Hostess product never goes bad. Upon closer inspection, it also revealed that the snack may decompose differently than your average foodstuff. As NPR reports, the varying mold growth on the Twinkies was so unusual, it caught the attention of fungi scientists.

The story of the putrefied pastries began in 2012, when nature photographer Colin Purrington learned of Hostess Brands' impending bankruptcy. Fearing Twinkies would disappear from shelves for good, he bought a box for posterity. It sat in his basement until he was hit with a junk food craving earlier this year.

When Purrington ripped open the 8-year-old package, he was surprised to find that the snacks inside were inedible. He had assumed Twinkies were indestructible, but the contents of the box proved otherwise: The cake he had bitten into tasted like what he described as "old sock," another one had a dark spot on it, and a third had shriveled up and turned gray.

After Purrington shared photos of his discovery online, he sent the Twinkies to Brian Lovett and Matt Kasson, scientists at West Virginia University in Morgantown who specialize in fungi. In the past, the researchers have studied how well fungi grow on preservative-laden food, like Peeps. They suspected that fungal growth was responsible for the Twinkies' decay—they just didn't know what kind.

The shriveled-up Twinkie appeared to be shrink-wrapped in its wrapper, a result of the fungus inside consuming more gases than it produced. The fungus may have stopped growing once it ran out of air in the package. When they unwrapped it, the scientists encountered a rock-solid material they needed a bone marrow biopsy tool to penetrate. The Twinkie wasn't hard all the way through, however: The soft, creamy center survived, suggesting the fungi was more attracted to the cake than the filling.

Samples of the Twinkie marked with the dark circle pointed to the presence of Cladosporium, one of the most common airborne molds found indoors. The researchers haven't been able to obtain a living spore sample from the hardened pastry, but they're still trying. Further lab dish tests will hopefully reveal the species of fungi that mummified one of the world's most shelf-stable baked goods.

[h/t NPR]