The veteran gravitational wave hunter from Glasgow University has come to the National Press Club in Washington DC to witness the statement of the primary direct detection of ripples in the fabric of spacetime brought on by the merger of two “intermediate-sized” black holes.
It is when you try and imagine the scenario being described in those amounts that you rock backwards, although the amounts seem bare on paper.
Visualize two monster black holes spinning down on each other in space. One includes a mass which is about 35 times that of our Sun, the other roughly 30. In the moment just before they coalesce, they are turning around each other several tens of times a second. And their event horizons unify and they become one – like two soap bubbles in a bath.
David Reitze, executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO), described it thus: “Take something about 150km in diameter, and pack 30 times the mass of the Sun into that, and then accelerate it to half the speed of light. Now, take another thing that’s 30 times the mass of the Sun, and accelerate that to half the speed of light. And then collide [the two objects] together. That’s what we saw here. It’s mind boggling.”
Everyone understands the equation; this is it in action.
That huge release of energy, as well as the warping of space-time that results, is why the LIGO lab’s happen to be in a position to sense it, though this staggering event happened about 1.3 billion light years from Earth.
A thousand researchers from 80 institutions in 15 nations are observing this moment. The delight this week has been palpable. It’s not difficult to see why.