Confirmation that the mysterious waves have been discovered ushers in a new era of astronomy and may answer big questions about black holes.
Albert Einstein was right! He hypothesized a century ago that gravitational waves exist, and rumors have been swirling for months that scientists have detected them. Those rumors were confirmed in a press conference on Thursday.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves,” Dr. David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), said during the conference. “We did it.”
His announcement was followed by a round of applause by scientists and journalists gathered at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for the “status report” from researchers involved in the long quest to detect the waves.
Gravitational waves have been likened to ripples in space-time that flow outward at the speed of light when black holes or other massive celestial objects collide.
Reitze said that the detected waves were found on Sept. 14 and were produced during the merger of two black holes that became a single, more massive black hole. (Watch the video above, and a computer simulation of the colliding black holes below.)
“Our observation of gravitational waves accomplishes an ambitious goal set out over five decades ago to directly detect this elusive phenomenon and better understand the universe, and, fittingly, fulfills Einstein’s legacy on the 100th anniversary of his general theory of relativity,” Reitze said in a statement.
Before the discovery was confirmed, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and professor at Arizona State University, told The Huffington Post that detecting these waves would be a “huge milestone.”
“It opens a new window on the universe,” he said. “Gravitational wave astronomy could be the astronomy of the 21st Century. More than that, it may reveal important information on the nature of gravity, black holes, and fundamental physics.”
“Every time we have opened a new window in the past, we have been surprised,” he continued. “I would be surprised if we weren’t surprised again.”
CLAUDIO GIOVANNINI VIA GETTY IMAGES
A 3-kilometers-long arm part of the Virgo detector at the European Gravitational Observatory used for the study of gravitational waves in collaboration with LIGO.
Clifford Burgess, a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, offered a similar assessment ahead of the press conference.
“If this is true, then you have 90 percent odds that it will win the Nobel Prize in Physics this year. It’s off-the-scale huge,” Burgess told Science magazine last week.
The discovery was a collaboration between the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and LIGO, which is a pair of kilometers-long laser devices designed to detect gravitational waves.
The devices — there is one in Livingston, Louisiana, and one in Hanford, Washington — have been operating on and off for more than a decade.
This article was updated Thursday at 10:30 a.m. EST.