Each year, astronomers gaze up at the sky and uncover new things about our universe—and occasionally they find something big, like last week’s groundbreaking recording of gravitational waves. Most of the findings don’t always have a huge impact back here on Earth. Some—like the recent sighting of a supermassive black hole that is 21 billion times larger than our sun—merely bring about a greater fascination of the unknown. But the newfound proof of gravitational waves requires significant revision to textbooks and to the way we perceive the universe.
Seattle University students have already shown excitement over the discovery. Senior Ashley Haynes-Gibson said she found it to be surprisingly emotional and profound.
“I was extremely excited to learn that we had discovered and acquired proof of something that has instinctively felt true to me for some time,” Haynes-Gibson said. “To know that we are just as intertwined in the workings of the universe as it is in us is fascinating.”
In 1916, Albert Einstein shook up the scientific community with a new way to think about time and space with his special theory of relativity (the one with E=mc2) and the general theory of relativity. In the most basic sense, Einstein theorized that space and time are flexible and that there is a curvature of space and time. But most importantly, he predicted that there are gravitational waves that distort the geometry of space—and his theory was just proven true, one hundred years later.
On Feb. 11, two observatories, one in Washington and the other in Louisiana, observed the collision of two black holes from over a billion light-years away which then sent out waves that made time speed up, slow down and then speed up again. This confirmed the idea of a space-time continuum.
With several astronomy courses taught at the UCOR level at Seattle U, the question is raised of how drastically this new information will change what is taught. The answer, according to physics and astronomy professor Jeffrey Brown, is, interestingly, not much.
“Gravitational waves come out of general relativity, which is almost never taught at the undergrad level,” Brown said. “Now, in terms of the consequences for observing things in our universe, frankly those discussions have just opened and that’s in the whole scientific community.”
So while the ramifications of this discovery might not seem like much at Seattle U—Brown explained that it would probably equate to about 15minutes of lecture and maybe an extra page in a textbook for students taking the astronomy courses offered by the school—it is actually the general physics community that will benefit most from the discovery rather than astronomers.
“Nobody has really disbelieved [Einstein’s theory], but this was a confirmation that was frustrating to not be able to do, and now they have finally done it,” Brown said.
Co-president of the Seattle University Physics Club Grace Jesensky was also enthusiastic about the findings, but in a different way.
“The gravitational wave detection tells us much more than meets the eye,” Jesensky said. “We not only have developed a tool to make these measurements and verified Einstein’s predictions, but we also learned that black holes truly exist.”
As Brown explained, an event like this is exceedingly rare and unpredictable; it could be a few years, decades or maybe after our lifetimes before a similar discovery is made again. The ability to record something one hundred billion light-years away is no small feat.
“This has been the most important discovery in the last century and I am honored to be alive to see and learn about it,” Jesensky said.
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