Today’s Top Space Headline: “We Found Gravitational Waves. Now Come the Cosmic Questions”

 

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So what might be that next great existential breakthrough in physics? Some items on the docket: discover dark matter and dark energy. And oh yeah, figure out where the matter in the universe comes from.


September 14, 2015, at 3:50 AM Central time, a tiny vibration shuddered down the 2.5-mile-long arms of a massive machine in Livingston, Louisiana. A fraction of a second later, a similar vibration shook the arms of an identical machine in Hanford, Washington. Eventually, physicists from those facilities confirmed the nature of those twinned tremors: After a century of work, they’d finally seen gravitational waves. That tiny vibration, they found, originated from a cataclysmic collision between two black holes, 1.5 billion years ago.

 

Just two months later, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detected a second wave. Then, this year, a third—then a fourth, fifth, and sixth. Together, they have solved a long-standing mystery in physics, confirming that gravity obeys Einstein’s theory of general relativity. And in October, three pioneering gravitational wave researchers—Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss—won the Nobel Prize for that critical work.

But don’t let the accolades make you think that LIGO’s success came easy. When the observatory started laying crucial infrastructure more than 20 years ago, the rest of the field viewed them as outsiders; a colleague even testified against congressional funding for their efforts. And LIGO isn’t an outlier; all big discoveries in physics inevitably follow a meandering (and costly) path of scientific labor and political sparring. The next discovery will again depend on a capricious combination of hard work, politics, and luck—so physicists have no idea which breakthrough will come next.

But you can expect it to be expensive. Physicists have solved many of the simpler mysteries in the universe, says astrophysicist Joshua Frieman of the University of Chicago, and the remaining questions are complicated enough to require multi-million, custom-made facilities. “We’re victims of our own success,” he says.

Continue reading at Wired…

Image credit: LIGO/Aurore Simonnet/Sonoma State University

 

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