GRAVITY EXISTS! (Just too cool… waaaaay cool.)

That is… gravitational waves exist.

Last night during my sermon for Ash Wednesday, I used an image from Augustine’s Confessions.  Augustine, who authored the unforgettable “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”, described us and our love as working like gravity, which in the thought of the ancients was a force within a thing that sought to go to its proper place of balance in relation to all other things.  “Amor meus pondus meum” (conf 13, 9, 10) said Augustine, “My love is my weight” drawing the restless soul to God, the only source of lasting peace. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, made to act as God acts.  He reveals something of His will to us.  When we obey Him we act in accordance with the way He made us and what He intended for us.  All things that live and move and have their being must come to rest in God or forever be in conflict with themselves and the cosmos.

But I digress…

From New Scientist:

Revolution in physics as gravitational waves seen for first time

We just turned the volume up on the sky. Gravitational waves, the booming echoes of massive objects moving all over the universe, have been detected for the first time by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which was recently upgraded.

Gravitational waves are predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, which says that massive objects warp space-time around them. When these objects accelerate, they make gravitational waves: ripples in the fabric of space-time that spread outward, like the wake left behind a boat. [Much as, I think, massive Mass properly celebrated and participated sends “waves” through the cosmos.  Save The Liturgy, Save The World.]

We have been pretty sure they exist for a while – their presence was inferred indirectly as far back as 1974 – but none had been observed directly.

In a press conference today at the National Press Club in Washington DC, which was simultaneously broadcast to the media and other members of the team that made the discovery, the LIGO collaboration announced that they had finally caught a wave.


This historic signal was produced by a pair of black holes roughly 1.3 billion light years away, one 29 times the mass of the sun and the other 36 times, orbiting each other and then merging into a single black hole.

LIGO’s dual detectors, based in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, felt the tremors on 14 September 2015 at almost the same instant. Their sensors registered space-time expanding and contracting by as much as a thousandth of the size of a proton – a tiny distance, but 10 times larger than the smallest unit LIGO can measure. [Amazing.]

This was a doubly lucky find: officially, the experiment wasn’t scheduled to begin taking data until four days later, on 18 September, in a run that continued until 12 January 2016. The signal arrived while the detectors were in “engineering mode”, making sure the instruments were running smoothly.

A second stroke of luck was the nature of the signal: it seems that black hole mergers happen more often than we expected.

All objects emit gravitational waves when they orbit each other, including Earth orbiting the sun. But as these two black holes circled each other, the energy they lost to gravitational waves was enough to bring them much closer together – causing them to distort space-time further and emit even more gravitational waves.

That set them on track to collide and merge into one bigger black hole. “It’s a runaway process,” says Frans Pretorius, of Princeton University in New Jersey. “The closer they get, the faster they spin.” Near the end, they were whirling so fast that each orbit lasted just a few milliseconds. [WHOA!  One of these stars is 29 times the mass of your Earth’s yellow Sun and the other 36 times?  And the orbit was in milliseconds?  It is nearly impossible to grasp the force of this… and yet to the least of the angels in the angelic hierarchy such a thing is less consequential to him than a plastic yoyo to us.]

When they eventually merged, the single black hole that remained was 62 times the mass of the sun – three solar masses lighter than the two original black holes combined. That missing mass all went into creating gravitational waves that fluttered space-time like a sheet.

The total power output of gravitational waves during the brief collision was 50 times greater than all of the power put out by all the of the stars in the universe put together,” said Kip Thorne of Caltech, one of LIGO’s founders. “It’s unbelievable.”  [“Praise ye Him, O sun and moon: praise Him, all ye stars and light.”]

At first, the resulting bigger black hole was lumpy instead of round, and getting rid of the lumps caused it to emit more gravitational waves. It then settled into a sphere and grew quiet. [Each one of us has an influence on the Body of Christ.  Lent should help us to get rid of our lumps so that we can help the Body run more smoothly.  This is not always a gentle process.]

By translating the frequency of the gravitational waves into sound waves, you can actually hear the signal. Physicists call it a “chirp“: a rise in pitch and volume as the black holes circle each other faster and faster.

The chirp from this new signal was very short – “just a thump”, said LIGO spokesperson Gabriela Gonzalez at the press conference.

Listen to the pair of black holes colliding – as detected by LIGO:

UPDATE 12 Feb:

There is a great article at the New Yorker which describes this discovery in more detail along with its tantalizing implications. HERE

Note well that the discovery of the “chirp” came on 14 September 2015. That is the 8th anniversary of Benedict XVI’s Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum going into effect.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. basis says:

    Not a revolution in physics, however. A confirmation of the validity of General Relativity. This observation is a confirmation of a predicted result of Einstein’s theory. New Scientist uses some fruity language which might suggest to the cassual reader there is some novel physics.

  2. acardnal says:

    I’d like to hear Fr. Robert Spitzer’s, SJ, Ph.D. and Fr. Guy Consolmagno’s, SJ, Ph.D, take on this discovery. And then there is The Masked Chicken’s view. (I’m concerned that maybe his brother’s health has deteriorated and perhaps that’s why he’s been so quiet. Prayers for them both.)

    The Holy Mass is cosmic and exists in and outside of time and space. It has gravitas.

  3. Yes, confirmation of the last previously unverified prediction of Einstein’s general theory.

  4. pappy says:

    So does this mean we’ll finally get flying cars ?

  5. PostCatholic says:

    And here I thought gravity didn’t exist and the universe sucks. (Old u/g joke.)

  6. lawoski says:

    For those who care, the article at the URL below discusses the difference between a “gravity wave” and a “gravitational wave”. Today’s announcement is about the latter.

  7. Someone please be the Garrigue says:

    And in a parallel universe New Cosmologists admit: “Grave matter exists!” (Nanoseconds before before they are annihilated by slightly amused antimatter.)

  8. Charles E Flynn says:

    With regard to the text in Father Z’s posting:

    Believe the black. Believe the red. Do not believe those who think they are incompatible.

  9. acardnal says:

    Correction: “Father”Guy Consolmagno SJ is actually a brother in the Jesuit order.

  10. arcanum_divinae says:

    One thing that’s undeniable about God from the physical evidence – He loves high-energy physics!

  11. Mariana2 says:

    “And then there is The Masked Chicken’s view.”

    Maybe he will approve of the ‘chirping’ of the universe : ).

  12. KAS says:

    WOW. I am in awe. Can you imagine, even as an infant, Jesus could have played with those black holes because as God He created them– it is humbling to think of the power God released to allow the crucifixion to take place so we could be saved– even though we are so insignificant in size and power when you think about the rest of the cosmos. A demonstration of a tiny bit of the power of God– we can hardly comprehend this scope, yet, if the angels are more powerful, how far out of our comprehension does this put God?

    Anyway, just WOW.

  13. The Masked Chicken says:

    I know this is not the place to mention this, but the urgent prayer request has closed. I have been out of the loop for the last few days. My brother had 13 hours of surgery to remove the mass in his stomach two weeks ago and the preliminary tests on his enlarged prostate (also discovered) were that there was no cancer and the tests on the stomach mass was inconclusive. He survived the surgery and with no overt signs of cancer, he was looking at a long, slow recovery, but, we all assumed the news was good. He appeared to be recovering and was moved from the hospital to a convalescent center closer to home. When I spoke to my mother on Sunday, he appeared to be getting stronger and she visited him on Monday night. She was called early Tuesday morning and told that he died during the night. The claim was that his heart stopped, but his family doctor saw no signs of any heart problems. His cause of death is unknown. Naturally, my mother is devastated. The wake is this afternoon and I checked the bus station for ticket availability last night at about 10:30 pm and there were seat available, but when I got to the bus station early this morning to buy a ticket, they were sold out (I should have bought a ticket online, last night, but I hate buying things online). I am waiting in the bus station, right now, to see if I can plead with the driver to take on an overflow passenger when the bus comes in (flying is out of the question). I am sorry to mention this, here, but I couldn’t think of any place, else. Naturally, things are a mess.

    A former student sent me an e-mail about the gravitational wave discovery, a few days ago. The astronomer, Lawrence Krauss leaked the news (quite unfairly) about 3 weeks ago (he might have waited until the authors published the results – he had nothing to do with the discovery).

    The Chicken

  14. Mary Jane says:

    Masked Chicken, I am so sorry for your family’s loss! You and your family and your brother’s soul will be in my prayers, especially today.

  15. Mariana2 says:

    Dear Chicken, My condolences and prayers.

  16. Anthony says:

    Condolences and prayers to The Masked Chicken, his brother, and their families!

  17. Anthony says:

    Regarding the detection of Gravitational Waves…

    This is just way too friggin cool for words.

    The genius intellectual capacity given to Einstein by Our Lord continues to bear fruit and amaze us all! Keep in mind, Einstein predicted these things just based on his *theoretical* work. – and it took over 100 years to finally verify another of his theories. That’s just how far ahead of the curve he was!

    Of course, all Thanks and Glory to God for giving us this man and endowing him with the requisite intelligence to help us better understand the physical Universe in which we live.

  18. acardnal says:

    Deepest sympathies to The Chicken. I’ll be attending noon-time Mass shortly and will remember your brother and your family.

  19. vandalia says:

    The level of technology we have today is difficult to comprehend. Let me give you one small example: The fab facilities that make integrated circuits. The optics used to “print” the circuits in the year 2000 were essentially the same as those used on the Hubble Space Telescope. And a typical fab facility would have 20 of those. And they would be completely obsolete in two years. Now, that was over 15 years ago. Try to imagine the current “state of the art” today.

    I will admit that I wrote publications that said the growth in silicon integrated circuit (CPU) complexity (Moore’s Law) could not continue past the year 2000. The technological demands were simply too great. Instead, it has continued far past that and no one would again be so idiotic as to predict when it will end. Aerospace engineers have an old saying that “given enough thrust, you can make a barn fly.” With enough brain power, money (and grace) you can construct things that we can barely imagine.

    Yet in the same way, it is insignificant in comparison with what we do at the altar.

    (First aside: To those who leaked this, “Keep you mouth shut!” If 17 year olds are allowed to announce their college choices on ESPN, let these guys have their moments in full.)

    (Second aside: [Much as, I think, massive Mass properly celebrated and participated sends “waves” through the cosmos.] That sounds a touch like a denial of ex opere operato to me. Even a Mass celebrated by an indifferent priest before a congregation wondering what the afternoon football game is has effect beyond our comprehension. While their individual disposition may prevent their reception of grace, the effects on the universe are the same.)

  20. Grumpy Beggar says:

    @ The Chicken – sorry to hear the unfortunate news, and that you’re additionally running into obstacles trying to reconnect with your family – will be remembering your brother, you and your intentions in an hour of adoration + Rosary prayed with a small group later this evening.

    God bless, Chicken.

  21. Go HERE to feast your eyes on an HTLM or PDF text of this landmark paper entitled Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger. The first of its 16 pages is a historical introduction–from Einstein’s 1916 prediction of gravitational waves to their actual observation now, a century later–that is accessible to the general reader. Three pages at the end list the names of the article’s approximately 1,050 authors–listed in alphabetical order, perhaps to render more interesting the task of the Nobel Prize selection committee, since no Nobel prize can be shared by more than 3 individuals.

  22. But for that ubiquitous “general reader”, the most appealing explanation I’ve seen may be here in The Economist. See also the predictably informative account here in The Guardian, with a 2-minute video showing the two black holes spinning into merger and generating the gravitational wave that reached the earth 1.3 billion years later.

  23. joan ellen says:

    Am so very sorry Chicken. Keeping you & your family in prayer.

  24. joan ellen says:

    Well…gravity exists. Ok. Seeing is believing. Hearing is believing. I heard the noise & the chirp.

    Buuuuttt…I have to get my little mind around the black hole phenomenon…I barely understand it…before I can connect either gravity or gravitational pull to it. You are amazing Fr. Z. to grasp that whole phenomenon so easily.

    I would like to believe that perhaps it is easier for the men among us to grasp this gravity/gravitational pull noise connection…but the image above is of a woman who seems to have no problem…as she introduces us to the noise. Oh…well…we are each given talents…

  25. swisswiss says:

    Sheet? Did you say sheet? Maybe like a sheet of paper? Sort of like “all the heavens rolled up like a scroll”? (Isaiah 34:4, Revelation 6:14)

  26. The Masked Chicken says:

    An even more amazing thing than the discover of the gravitational waves was the fact that Physics Review Letters published the paper with a Creative Commons license,which means that anybody can use the research. Unless you have a university subscription, it is very difficult to access AIP (American Institute of Physics) papers, online.

    The abstract contains the following:

    “The signal sweeps upwards in frequency from 35 to 250 Hz with a peak gravitational-wave strain of 1.0×10?21 .

    This is not a misprint. Strain has no units, being the ratio of deformation to original length: dL / L. If a 10 cm bar is compressed to 9 cm, the strain is (10-9)/10 =.1, which may be expressed as a percent (10%). As the black holes deformed space, they gave rise to a strain on the surrounding space, alternately compressing it in the x and y directions. To give you an idea of this strain, the sun is 1.392 million Km across and one black hole in the experiment was 36 times this and the other was 26 times this. The distance between the black holes shrunk as they coalesced, but the strain, the deformation of space at its maximum, was something like: 1 x 10^-21 = x / (1 x 10^-9 m x 62) = .016 x 10^-12 m, which is the size of a proton, or, actually, about a hundred times smaller.

    We, still, haven’t captured the elusive graviton, the carrier particle for gravitational force (as the photon is for light), so no quantum gravity theory, just yet :(

    Still, a great discovery. Now, don’t be fooled by the spin that we are, “hearing,” space. Space is, essentially, a vacuum and sound doesn’t travel in space. We are interpreting waves as equivalent sound. It is like colorizing Hubble pictures. I did the original research on sight-to-sound conversion way back when. They could have done it as a color spectral shift, but sound seems cooler.

    The Chicken

  27. Sonshine135 says:

    Prayers for you and for your family Chicken!

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