After five months of keeping their stupendous discovery under wraps, physicists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) are finally allowed to freak out publicly about gravitational waves. And they’re enjoying the hell out of it.
“Seeing the data that the public just saw hit me like a ton of bricks,” Scott Hughes, an astrophysicist at MIT who learned of LIGO’s big discovery back in September, told me on Thursday. “Imagine twenty three years of your career suddenly coming to fruition. It’s hard to express the way everything seemed to just fall into place.”
Giddy laughter, raucous cheering and tearful speeches set the tone for the historic announcement, delivered yesterday at a press conference in Washington DC. A month ago, Gizmodo was the first report the discovery.
“My reaction was just… wow,” said David Reitz a physicist and LIGO executive director at the California Institute of Technology. “Did I think the signal was too good to be true? Absolutely.”
Indeed, many of the physicists I spoke with at the announcement expressed total denial at first seeing the cosmic ripples of two black holes colliding over a billion light years away. The signal was just so damn good. Peter Shawhan, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and LIGO collaborator, called it a “golden event”.
“My first thought was that this was a blind injection,” Shawhan said, referring to the false signals engineers plant in the LIGO detector to ensure the data is being analysed properly. “When LIGO told us it definitely wasn’t, I still didn’t believe it. I had to look at the data for myself.”
For Shawhan, Reitz and many others, disbelief soon turned to awe as it became clear — hours after the detection took place on September 14 — that the first hard evidence supporting Einstein’s theory was no joke. But rather than going public immediately, the LIGO team spent the next five months meticulously validating their discovery, making sure to account for every possible source of environmental noise. During that time, they were sworn to silence. (Some fared better than others.)
“It’s such a huge relief to get to share this with the world,” Lisa Barsotti, a principle research scientist at LIGO said. “I felt like time between September and February was just being stretched out.”
Gabriela Gonzalez, a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University (which houses one of LIGO’s two detectors), agrees. “It feels great to be talking about this, to get to share our excitement with the world,” she said. “But, as I’ve said many times before, this is just the beginning.”
Indeed, even as the buzz of observing a new and utterly stupefying wonder of nature begins to fade over the weeks and months ahead, there’s a bigger reasons for physicists — and all of us — to be thrilled about gravitational wave detection. As Gizmodo’s Jennifer Ouellette explained, we have a way of observing the universe around us without electromagnetic radiation for the first time in history. It’s like acquiring a new sense, as if our hearing were restored after a lifetime of deafness.
“400 years ago, Galileo turned a telescope to the sky and opened a window of modern astronomy,” Reitz said. “I think we’re doing something similar. I think we’re opening a window to the universe.”
“What’s going to come now is we’re going to hear more gravitational waves,” he added. “We may see things we never imagined existing.”
But it’s not just black holes in distant galaxies that gravitational waves will illuminate. The universe is vibrating — we can hear it happening now — and however far those vibrations may be from human experience, they add another layer of complexity, madness and beauty to the fabric of reality.
Hundreds of years ago, our worldview changed forever when Copernicus showed that the Earth orbits the Sun. Now, explorers have once again reached beyond the edge of experience and revealed a new truth about our universe. This isn’t just another datapoint in some arcane academic text. This is, to paraphrase Caltech physicist Kip Thorne, a storm on the cosmic ocean that’s as culturally impactful as any great novel, movie or work of art we pass along to future generations.
So it’s time to get stoked about gravitational waves. The universe just dropped its first sound byte, but the best music is yet to come.
Top image: LIGO co-founders Kip Thorne (R), and Rainer Weiss (L) sharing the discovery of gravitational waves, via Getty Images