What the Latest Gravity Wave Announcement Means

Many of you may have seen Monday’s major announcement by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the organization that discovered gravitational waves and won the Nobel Prize.  But if you’re like me, you weren’t exactly sure what LIGO announced.

I asked Agilent’s resident professor, scientist Jim Hollenhorst, for a further explanation.

“In many ways, this is more exciting than the initial discovery,” Jim says.

“Previous events seen by LIGO were mergers of black holes. They are mind-boggling, but the only signal that comes out is gravity waves.  Black holes are just curved space; there is no matter to interact and create ‘fireworks’ that can be observed in gamma rays, x-rays, visible light or radio waves.

“This latest event was caused by colliding neutron stars, stars consisting entirely of neutrons.  They have a density so high that the entire sun could be packed into a sphere with a diameter of about ten miles.  Such a star is almost – but not quite – large enough to collapse into a black hole.

“The really big news here is that when neutron stars collide, we can see fireworks.  What is so exciting is that once the LIGO team reported a likely neutron star collision, the world’s astronomers set out in search of something else in the sky that happened at the same time.  They were spurred on by the simultaneous observation of a small gamma ray burst.”

In other words, LIGO has just lived up to the “O” in its name – for the first time, these phenomena can be observed by astronomers!

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