Physicists Spot Einstein's Gravitational Waves for the First Time

SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago
SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago

Simulation of two merging black holes in front of the Milky Way. Scientists said the Sept. 14 event was so intense that in the moment before the colliding black holes swallowed each other, they emitted more energy than the rest of the universe combined.

After a decades-long search, physicists have managed to detect ethereal ripples in the very fabric of space, known as gravitational waves—triggered in this case by the death-spiral of a pair of merging black holes—and snared by a sophisticated detector known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The discovery is being described as one of the great physics breakthroughs of the decade, on par with the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, and very likely Nobel Prize–worthy.

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, told mental_floss that the discovery “monumental.” The new technology will allow astronomers “to peer into parts of the universe that we’d never could have seen otherwise,” Krauss said. More than that, it will pave the way for a new era in astronomy, one in which gravitational waves will be used to study a wide array of all astrophysical phenomena, many of them never before open to scientific scrutiny. “It’s opened up a whole new window on the universe,” he said—a metaphor that’s been echoed by many of the physicists and astronomers who have been weighing in excitedly on the discovery.

The discovery was unveiled Thursday morning at a packed Washington DC press conference organized by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research (with simultaneous presentations by partner institutions in at least four other countries).

The gravitational waves recorded by the LIGO detectors were the result of the violent merger of two black holes, located some 1.3 billion light-years from Earth, explained Gabriela González, a physicist at Louisiana State University and a spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration. One of the black holes was determined to have a mass 29 times that of our Sun, the other was even heavier, with a mass equal to 36 Suns. Although LIGO can only roughly pin down the direction of the signal, González said the black hole pair—now a single black hole, following the cataclysmic merger—is located in the southern sky, roughly in the direction of the Magellanic Clouds, the Milky Way’s small companion galaxies (of course, the black holes are far more distant).

The black hole pair had been locked in mutual orbit for hundreds of millions of years, gradually losing energy through the emission of gravitational waves, and then finally emitting one last “death burst” as the two objects merged into a single entity, González said. “What we saw is from only the last fraction of a second before the merger,” she told mental_floss.

The waves created from that final blast then rippled across the cosmos. After more than a billion years, some of those waves washed silently past Earth on September 14 of last year, where they triggered a tiny “blip” at each of the two identical LIGO detectors (one located in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana).

Incredibly, the team of researchers managed to keep the discovery relatively secret for almost six months. When the initial signal was recorded, Caltech physicist Kip Thorne received an e-mail from a colleague. “He said, ‘LIGO may have detected gravitational waves; go and look at this,’” referring Thorne to initial data posted on a private LIGO webpage. “I looked at it, and I said, ‘My god—this may be it!’” Thorne told mental_floss. (Thorne played a key role in the early development of LIGO and is known not only for writing some of the most-read books on gravitational physics, but for his collaboration with Carl Sagan on the book Contact, and with the makers of the smash sci-fi film Interstellar.)

Not everyone was quite so tight-lipped—and in fact rumors had been circulating for weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement (as mental_floss reported last month). A few people got an early look at the results and couldn’t contain their excitement. McMaster University physicist Clifford Burgess emailed some of the details to colleagues in his department, and the news quickly spilled out via social media. (Burgess described the discovery as “off-the-scale huge.”)

And while there have been a somewhat alarming number of super-hyped physics “discoveries” that failed to pan out in recent years—remember the faster-than-light neutrinos?—the LIGO researchers claim to have ruled out any possible non-gravitational-wave explanation for the signal they recorded. The finding is being published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Review Letters (the “discovery paper” was released yesterday morning, February 11), along with a series of further papers.

It’s a discovery nearly a quarter-century in the making: LIGO was spearheaded by Caltech and MIT in 1992, and now involves nearly 1000 researchers from the UK, Germany, Australia, and beyond. With a total cost of more than $600 million, LIGO is the largest project ever funded by NSF.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, based on his newly developed theory of gravity, known as general relativity, in 1915. Gravitational waves are literally ripples in spacetime, created whenever massive objects throw their weight around—for example, when ultra-dense stars, known as neutron stars, collide, or when a star blows up in a supernova. In fact, any time masses accelerate, gravitational waves are produced—even doing dumbbell-lifts at the gym would produce them—but such waves would be infinitesimally weak, and quite impossible to measure. Even the waves from the black hole merger were so faint that they required the massive LIGO detectors to finally pick them up.

“It’s just really, tremendously exciting,” physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida, one of the world’s leading authorities on general relativity, told mental_floss. “We’ve just finished celebrating the 100th anniversary of GR [general relativity], so this is icing on the cake.”

David Spergel, a physicist at Princeton, tweeted: “Up to now, we have only seen the universe. Now, for the first time, we can hear," adding, "The universe is playing a beautiful tune and LIGO just heard it.”

Gravitational waves alternately stretch and shrink space, by a tiny amount, as they pass by. Inside each of the LIGO detectors, laser beams bounce back and forth between mirrors attached to weights. A passing gravitational wave causes a slight change in the distance the laser beam travels, which leaves a telltale pattern (known as an interference pattern) in the recorded laser light. (Having two detectors located more than 2000 miles apart helps rule out false-alarm signals that might register at only one site.)

“We saw the same waveform—the same signal—in the two detectors,” González told mental_floss. Recording such signals by chance might happen “once in every 200,000 years,” she said.

LIGO went online in 2002, but with only a fraction of its current sensitivity. The detectors were upgraded last fall in an effort known as “Advanced LIGO.” The actual stretching caused by the passing gravitational wave is mind-bogglingly small, causing the detectors to grow or shrink in length by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

The success of the LIGO detectors is “a wonderful testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the scientists,” Krauss said. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.”

Astronomers and physicists expect the new technique to reveal the universe in a new light, as the first optical telescopes did when Galileo first used them to study the night sky 400 years ago, and as the first radio telescopes did in the mid-20th century.

Editor's note: This story has been significantly updated to include input from a main LIGO researcher and additional outside experts, as well as with more comprehensive details about the extraordinary find.

Sorry, Plant Parents: Study Shows Houseplants Don’t Improve Air Quality

sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images
sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes accepted wisdom needs a more thorough vetting process. Case in point: If you’ve ever heard that owning plants can improve indoor air quality in your home or office and act as a kind of organic air purifier or cleaner, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s not a whole lot of science to back that theory up. In fact, plants will do virtually nothing for you in that respect.

This botanic bummer comes from Drexel University researchers, who just published a study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Examining 30 years of previous findings, Michael Waring, an associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering, found only scant evidence that plants do anything to filter contaminants from indoor air.

Many of these studies were limited, the study says, by unrealistic conditions. Plants would often be placed in a sealed chamber, with a single volatile organic compound (VOC) introduced to contaminate the air inside. While the VOCs decreased over a period of hours or days, Waring found that the studies placed little emphasis on measuring the clean air delivery rate (CADR), or how effectively an air purifier can “clean” the space. When Waring converted the studies' results to CADR, the plants's ability to filter contaminants was much weaker than simply introducing fresh air to disperse VOCs. (Additionally, no one is likely to live in a sealed chamber.)

The notion of plants as natural air filters likely stemmed from a NASA experiment in 1989 which argued that plants could remove certain compounds from the air. As with the other studies, it took place in a sealed environment, which made the results difficult to translate to a real-world environment.

Plants can clean air, but their efficiency is so minimal that Waring believes it would take between 10 and 1000 of them per square meter of floor space to have the same effect as simply opening a window or turning on the HVAC system to create an air exchange. Enjoy all the plants you like for their beauty, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to help you breathe any easier.

10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. Marie Curie's parents were teachers.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted that all their children—including their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. Marie Curie had to seek out alternative education for women.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 Maria moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. Marie Curie is the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic: With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person to win the award twice. And she remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. Marie Curie added two elements to the Periodic Table.

The second Nobel Prize Marie Curie received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for ray and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. Nobel Prize-winning ran in Marie Curie's family.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. Marie Curie did her most important work in a shed.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie Curie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea of the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products […] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. Marie Curie offered to donate her medals to the war effort.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. Marie Curie developed a portable X-ray to treat soldiers.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Marie's desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. Marie Curie founded centers for medical research.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.