CSUF News Service

Why Gravitational Waves Matter

Titan Physicists Discuss Discovery

Cal State Fullerton physicists and their students are part of the international collaboration of researchers who contributed to the first direct detection of gravitational waves — 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted them.

Physics faculty members Joshua Smith, Jocelyn Read and Geoffrey Lovelace of Cal State Fullerton's Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center discuss the importance of this major scientific discovery and the potential benefits to society.

What are gravitational waves?

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that are produced by masses that revolve or collapse in a lopsided way. The waves travel at the speed of light, stretching and squeezing the distances between things in their path. Like light, gravitational waves can have many different frequencies. The gravitational waves that LIGO searches for are roughly at the frequency of the sounds humans hear.

Why should we care about finding gravitational waves?

First of all, finding gravitational waves confirms fundamental predictions of Einstein's theory of gravity, checking that we understand the universe as well as we think we do. Measuring these waves has required decades of science and engineering work, pushing the limits of human capabilities in new ways. We are now able to observe two black holes merging together a billion light years away! In addition, gravitational waves will provide a new way to observe the universe — and we expect to learn a lot from these observations. Einstein's theory already is being used in many ways to improve our daily lives, including GPS satellite timing.

So how does this discovery affect our lives?

It opens a new field of astronomy that future students will explore. Like many scientific advances, there probably won't be much change in our day-to-day lives — at first. We'll understand more about why and how the universe works, and we'll be able to listen to the soundtrack, or the "symphony," of the universe for the first time. But experience also has taught us that scientific breakthroughs tend to have huge payoffs in the long-term — things that impact our daily lives like electronics, lasers, medical imaging and the Internet all stem from this sort of exploratory scientific work done many years ago.

Further, the technology required to push Advanced LIGO to the sensitivity required to make this discovery has improved the state-of-the-art in lasers, optics, vibration isolation and other technology areas that likely will have impacts on other areas of science and technology in the future.

What do physicists hope gravitational waves will reveal about the universe?

Gravitational waves will open a new window on the universe, revealing objects that we could not see with light — such as black holes — and by giving us information about objects that are complementary to what we learn from light. We can use gravitational-wave observations to learn about how the universe has changed over time, how stars and galaxies form and evolve, and how exotic astrophysical objects like black holes and neutron stars behave. But perhaps more excitingly, every time we have opened a new window on the universe, we have found something we didn't expect — and the most exciting part might be the still-unknown surprises.

What's next for CSUF researchers?

This discovery opens a whole new field of astronomy, and we hope that it is one of many gravitational- wave discoveries to come. Our work to improve the sensitivity of our instruments, better understand the full array of possible gravitational-wave sources, and learn as much as possible from this detection and from future observations will give us lots to do. Together with our students, and with scientists around the world, we will continue to explore this new frontier of astronomy.

What do you think Einstein would say about the discovery?

Das ist unglaublich!" (That's unbelievable!)


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