Physics / Relativity / Science And Math

The Direction of LIGO’s Gravitational Waves

The direction of LIGO's gravitational waves, superposed

On September 14th, 2015, the LIGO gravitational wave observatory network detected the gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes. In moments, the LIGO team estimated (very broadly) where the black holes were located in the sky; these regions are highlighted in figure 1. Today I tell you how they figured this out. And why it’s important. Electromagnetic Counterparts First, let’s talk about why the direction of the waves is important. When LIGO detects gravitational waves, those waves can tell us an awful lot about their source. Just from the waveform, LIGO learned that the waves from December

Astrophysics / Physics / Relativity / etc.

The Black Holes that Created LIGO’s Gravitational Waves

LIGO merger Bohn

A little over a week ago, the LIGO collaboration detected gravitational waves emitted during the in-spiral and merger of two black holes. And the world’s scientists, myself included, collectively went bananas. Last week, I attempted to summarize the event and capture some of the science, and poetry, that has us so excited. In short, gravitational waves provide us a totally new way to look at the universe. LIGO’s one detection has already provided us with a wealth of information about gravity and astrophysics. Today, I summarize some of what we’ve learned. Black Holes As We Knew Them In the

Astrophysics / Physics / Relativity / etc.

The Poetry of LIGO’s Gravitational Waves

Binary Black Hole Merger Signal

Yesterday the LIGO scientific collaboration announced that they had detected the gravitational waves from the in-spiral and merger of two black holes, shown in figure 1. It would not be an overstatement to say that this result has changed science forever. As a gravitational physicist, it is hard for me to put into words how scientifically important and emotionally powerful this moment is for me and for everyone in my field. But I’m going to try. This is my attempt to capture some of the science—and the poetry—of LIGO’s gravitational wave announcement. The Source About 1.3 billion years ago

Astrophysics / Physics / Relativity / etc.

The Geodetic Effect: Measuring the Curvature of Spacetime

gravity probe B in curved spacetime

A couple of weeks ago, I described the so-called “classical tests of general relativity,” which were tests of early predictions of the theory. This week, I want to tell you about a much more modern, difficult, and convincing test: A direct measurement of the curvature of spacetime. It’s called the geodetic effect. This is the eighth post in my howgrworks series. Let’s get to it. We know from general relativity that gravity is a distortion of how we measure distance and duration. And that we can interpret this distortion as the curvature of a unified spacetime. When particles travel

Physics / Quantum Mechanics / Relativity / etc.

The Holometer

Figure 1. A member of the holometer team works on the device. Image due to Fermilab.

You may have heard the buzz about the holometer, shown in figure 1, before. It’s a giant laser interferometer, much like those used to search for gravitational waves, designed to detect quantum fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime. At least, that’s the claim. The holometer just released a preprint of their first science paper. And of course,  a Fermilab press release appears in Symmetry Magazine. The article is good, and I recommend you read it. And the holometer experiment is good, interesting science. But I have to say, I’m extremely annoyed by how much the holometer team is overselling their

Physics / Relativity / Science And Math

Classical Tests of General Relativity

Abanonded steam engine in Uyuni train cemetery

Last Wednesday, November 25, was the 100 year anniversary of general relativity. It was the precise day that Einstein presented his field equations, shown in figure 1, to the world. In celebration of this anniversary, today I present to you some of the early triumphs of general relativity, classical predictions of the theory that have been precisely tested and where theory has exquisitely matched experiment. This is the sixth instalment of my howgrworks series. Let’s get started. The Perihelion of Mercury Before Einstein, we believed that the motion of planets in the solar system were governed by Kepler’s laws

Geometry / Physics / Relativity / etc.

In-Falling Geodesics in Our Local Spacetime


My previous post was a description of the shape of spacetime around the Earth. I framed the discussion by asking what happens when I drop a ball from rest above the surface of the Earth. Spacetime is curved. And the ball takes the straightest possible path through spacetime. So what does that look like? Last time I generated a representation of the spacetime to illustrate. However, I generated some confusion by claiming that it “should be obvious” that the straightest possible path is curved towards or away from the Earth. When a textbook author says “the proof is trivial”

Geometry / Physics / Relativity / etc.

Our Local Spacetime

Gravity Probe B circling Earth

General relativity tells us that mass (and energy) bend spacetime. And when people visualize the effect of a planet on spacetime, they usually imagine something like in figure 1, where the planet creates a “dip” in spacetime much like a “gravitational well.” But today I’m going to show you what spacetime actually looks like near a planet… and it doesn’t look anything like the common picture. This is the fifth part in my many-part series on general relativity. Here are the first four parts: Galileo almost discovered general relativity General relativity is the dynamics of distance General relativity is

Physics / Relativity / Science And Math

General Relativity is the Dynamics of Distance

kogler crazy art installation

This is part two in a many-part series on general relativity. Last time, I described how Galileo almost discovered general relativity. In particular, I told you that gravity isn’t a force. In fact, gravity is the same as acceleration. Now, this is a completely crazy idea. After all, we’re all sitting in the gravitational field of the Earth right now, but we don’t feel like we’re moving, let alone accelerating. But let’s take this crazy idea at face value and see where it leads us. (Of course, the Earth is spinning, which is an acceleration. And it’s orbiting the sun,

Astrophysics / Physics / Relativity

The Curvature of Spacetime

Abell 2218

Spacetime is curved. We’ve all heard the line. But what does it mean? Well on the largest scales, the curvature of spacetime is abundantly clear as the warped fabric of the universe distorts images of distant objects. The image below is of the Abell 2218 galaxy cluster, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The cluster is very massive so it warps the spacetime around it. This warped spacetime acts as a lens so that light light coming from galaxies behind Abell 2218 is spread out much more than it should be. The result is that images of galaxies behind