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.

The Reason Our Teeth Are So Sensitive to Pain

This woman's tooth pain is actually helping her avoid further damage.
This woman's tooth pain is actually helping her avoid further damage.
champja/iStock via Getty Images

On a good day, your teeth can chew through tough steak and split hard candy into pieces without you feeling a thing. But sometimes, something as simple as slurping a frosty milkshake can send a shock through your tooth that feels even more painful than stubbing your toe.

According to Live Science, that sensitivity is a defense mechanism we’ve developed to protect damaged teeth from further injury.

“If you eat something too hot or chew something too cold, or if the tooth is worn down enough where the underlying tissue underneath is exposed, all of those things cause pain,” Julius Manz, American Dental Association spokesperson and director of the San Juan College dental hygiene program, told Live Science. “And then the pain causes the person not to use that tooth to try to protect it a little bit more.”

Teeth are made of three layers: enamel on the outside, pulp on the inside, and dentin between the two. Pulp, which contains blood vessels and nerves, is the layer that actually feels pain—but that doesn’t mean the other two layers aren’t involved. When your enamel (which isn’t alive and can’t feel anything at all) is worn down, it exposes the dentin, a tissue that will then allow especially hot or cold substances to stimulate the nerves in the pulp. Pulp can’t sense temperature, so it interprets just about every stimulus as pain.

If you do have a toothache, however, pulp might not be the (only) culprit. The periodontal ligament, which connects teeth to the jawbone, can also feel pain. As Manz explains, that sore feeling people sometimes get because of an orthodontic treatment like braces is usually coming from the periodontal ligament rather than the pulp.

To help you avoid tooth pain in the first place, here are seven tips for healthier teeth.

[h/t Live Science]

Arrokoth, the Farthest, Oldest Solar System Object Ever Studied, Could Reveal the Origins of Planets

NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko
NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko

A trip to the most remote part of our solar system has revealed some surprising insights into the formation of our own planet. Three new studies based on data gathered on NASA's flyby of Arrokoth—the farthest object in the solar system from Earth and the oldest body ever studied—is giving researchers a better idea of how the building blocks of planets were formed, what Arrokoth's surface is made of, and why it looks like a giant circus peanut.

Arrokoth is a 21-mile-wide space object that formed roughly 4 billion years ago. Located past Pluto in the Kuiper Belt, it's received much less abuse than other primordial bodies that sit in asteroid belts or closer to the sun. "[The objects] that form there have basically been unperturbed since the beginning of the solar system," William McKinnon, lead author of one of the studies, said at a news briefing.

That means, despite its age, Arrokoth doesn't look much different today than when it first came into being billions of years ago, making it the perfect tool for studying the origins of planets.

In 2019, the NASA spacecraft New Horizons performed a flyby of Arrokoth on the edge of the solar system 4 billion miles away from Earth. The probe captured a binary object consisting of two connected lobes that were once separate fragments. In their paper, McKinnon and colleagues explain that Arrokoth "is the product of a gentle, low-speed merger in the early solar system."

Prior to these new findings, there were two competing theories into how the solid building blocks of planets, or planetesimals, form. The first theory is called hierarchical accretion, and it states that planetesimals are created when two separate parts of a nebula—the cloud of gas and space dust born from a dying star—crash into one another.

The latest observations of Arrokoth support the second theory: Instead of a sudden, violent collision, planetesimals form when gases and particles in a nebula gradually amass to the point where they become too dense to withstand their own gravity. Nearby components meld together gradually, and a planetesimal is born. "All these particles are falling toward the center, then whoosh, they make a big planetesimal. Maybe 10, 20, 30, 100 kilometers across," said McKinnon, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Washington University. This type of cloud collapse typically results in binary shapes rather than smooth spheroids, hence Arrokoth's peanut-like silhouette.

If this is the origin of Arrokoth, it was likely the origin of other planetesimals, including those that assembled Earth. "This is how planetesimal formation took place across the Kuiper Belt, and quite possibly across the solar system," New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern said at the briefing.

The package of studies, published in the journal Science, also includes findings on the look and substance of Arrokoth. In their paper, Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Will Grundy and colleagues reveal that the surface of the body is covered in "ultrared" matter so thermodynamically unstable that it can't exist at higher temperatures closer to the sun.

The ultrared color is a sign of the presence of organic substances, namely methanol ice. Grundy and colleagues speculate that the frozen alcohol may be the product of water and methane ice reacting with cosmic rays. New Horizons didn't detect any water on the body, but the researchers say its possible that H2O was present but hidden from view. Other unidentified organic compounds were also found on Arrokoth.

New Horizon's flyby of Pluto and Arrokoth took place over the course of a few days. To gain a further understanding of how the object formed and what it's made of, researchers need to find a way to send a probe to the Kuiper Belt for a longer length of time, perhaps by locking it into the orbit of a larger body. Such a mission could tell us even more about the infancy of the solar system and the composition of our planetary neighborhood's outer limits.

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