Catching the Gravitational Wave

Jul 17, 2007
Traveling at the Speed of Thought
Traveling at the Speed of Thought

For nearly a century, scientists searched to uncover the tremors Einstein believed were produced by waves in the fabric of space and time.

At first, Albert Einstein believed that gravitational waves existed, ripples small and large in the curvature of space and time. But he repeatedly changed his mind, first doubting their existence, then believing, and then changing his mind again.

In the end, after decades of debate, scientists confirmed every main point of Einstein's early theory of gravitational waves. In his new book, Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves, published by Princeton University Press, University of Arkansas professor Daniel Kennefick traces the history of a theory that researchers believe will help them one day better understand some of the greatest mysteries in the universe.

The story of Einstein's angry response when an anonymous colleague attempted to correct him forms a central part of the book. In the end, Einstein finally admitted that gravitational waves might exist after all in the manner he had first predicted.

The idea of gravitational waves is only 100 years old, but since the day it was first posited, the theory has aroused great controversy among some of the most noted scientists of the century, including John Wheeler, Richard Feynman and Hermann Bondi.

"In the broader universe these waves may play a role in the later development of star systems," said Kennefick. "It's possible that when pulsars, which start out spinning very rapidly after they are created from the collapse of a normal star, lose a lot of their spin with time, the reason is that they are losing energy to the gravitational waves they emit. Understanding these waves could lead us to a great deal more knowledge about the nature of these dying stars."

Most important, Kennefick said, is that researchers might unravel the mystery of the black holes thought to exist at the center of galaxies. When the Earth orbits around the sun, it produces small gravitational waves, completely imperceptible, analogous to the tiny ripples formed when a pebble is thrown into a pond. But a massive black hole can contain millions or billions of suns, hard to see with ordinary telescopes, and each time one swallows a star, the gravitational waves created are far stronger, like tossing a heavy stone into a pond.

"Astronomers have seen binary neutron stars emitting gravitational waves that carry some energy with them as they go off," said Kennefick. "As binary stars lose energy and decay, we can see that their orbital period decreases because the two stars are getting closer to each other. Each orbit takes less and less time, and when we measure that change, we find it agrees very precisely with Einstein's 1918 calculation."

The book should be of interest to anyone wanting to learn more about the history of science, as well as to teachers in the classroom. One chapter has been translated into Japanese already, and Princeton University Press plans to translate the entire book.

Kennefick left the California Institute of Technology to come to the University of Arkansas in 2004.

Source: University of Arkansas

Explore further: Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Alan Guth on new insights into the 'Big Bang'

Mar 20, 2014

Earlier this week, scientists announced that a telescope observing faint echoes of the so-called "Big Bang" had found evidence of the universe's nearly instantaneous expansion from a mere dot into a dense ...

Can you escape the force of gravity?

Apr 08, 2014

It feels like you just can't get away from clingy gravity. Even separated by distances of hundreds of millions of light years, gravity is reaching out to all of us. Is there a place you could go to get away ...

Astronomers challenge Cosmological Model

Apr 03, 2014

(Phys.org) —Astronomers Professor Chris Collins and Dr Ian McCarthy from LJMU's Astrophysics Research Institute are challenging the view that the currently preferred cosmological model of the Universe is ...

Recommended for you

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

5 hours ago

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

How to test the twin paradox without using a spaceship

Apr 16, 2014

Forget about anti-ageing creams and hair treatments. If you want to stay young, get a fast spaceship. That is what Einstein's Theory of Relativity predicted a century ago, and it is commonly known as "twin ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...

Robotics goes micro-scale

(Phys.org) —The development of light-driven 'micro-robots' that can autonomously investigate and manipulate the nano-scale environment in a microscope comes a step closer, thanks to new research from the ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...