5 Things We Know About Gravitational Waves—And 2 That Are a Mystery

An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
An illustration showing the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other.
LIGO/T. Pyle

Gravitational waves, first detected in fall 2015 and then again a few months later, are making headlines this week following the detection of a third pair of colliding black holes. This particular duo is located a whopping 3 billion light years from Earth, making it the most distant source of gravitational waves discovered so far.

The signal from this latest black hole merger tripped the detectors at the twin LIGO facilities on January 4 of this year (the acronym stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory). The newly created black hole—the result of this latest cosmic collision—weighs in at about 49 times the mass of the Sun, putting it in-between the two earlier black hole collisions that LIGO recorded, in terms of size. There’s now ample evidence that black holes can weigh more than 20 solar masses—a finding that challenges the traditional understanding of black hole formation. “These are objects we didn’t know existed before LIGO detected them,” David Shoemaker, an MIT physicist and spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration, said in a statement.

Gravitational waves are shaping up to be the hot new astronomical tool of the 21st century, offering glimpses into the universe’s darkest corners and providing insights into the workings of the cosmos that we can’t get by any other means. Here, then, are five things we know about these cosmic ripples, and a couple more things that we haven’t quite figured out yet:

1. THEY'D HAVE MADE EINSTEIN SMILE.

We knew, or at least strongly suspected, that gravitational waves existed long before their discovery in 2015. They were predicted by Einstein’s theory of gravity, known as general relativity, published just over 100 years ago. The first black hole mergers observed by LIGO produced tell-tale cosmic signatures that meshed perfectly with what Einstein’s theory predicted. But the black hole collision announced this week may yield yet another feather for Einstein’s cap. It involves something called “dispersion.” When waves of different wavelengths pass through a physical medium—like light passing through glass, for example—the rays of light diverge (this is the how a prism creates a rainbow). But Einstein’s theory says gravitational waves ought to be immune to this sort of dispersion—and this is exactly what the observations suggest, with this latest black hole merger providing the strongest confirmation so far. (This Einstein fellow was pretty bright!)

2. THEY'RE RIPPLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACE-TIME.

According to Einstein’s theory, whenever a massive object is accelerated, it creates ripples in space-time. Typically, these cosmic disturbances are too small to notice; but when the objects are massive enough—a pair of colliding black holes, for example—then the signal may be large enough to trigger a “blip” at the LIGO detectors, the pair of gravitational wave laboratories located in Louisiana and in Washington state. Even with colliding black holes, however, the ripples are mind-bogglingly small: When a gravitational wave passes by, each 2.5-mile-long arm of the L-shaped LIGO detectors gets stretched and squeezed by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

3. THEY LET US "LISTEN" TO THE UNIVERSE.

At least in a figurative sense, gravitational waves let us “listen in” on some of the universe’s most violent happenings. In fact, the way that gravitational waves work is closely analogous to sound waves or water waves. In each case, you have a disturbance in a particular medium that causes waves to spread outward, in ever-increasing circles. (Sound waves are a disturbance in the air; water waves are a disturbance in water—and in the case of gravitational waves, it’s a disturbance in the fabric of space itself.) To “hear” gravitational waves, you just have to convert the signals received by LIGO into sound waves. So what do we actually hear? In the case of colliding black holes, it’s something like a cosmic “chirp”—a kind of whooping sound that progresses quickly from low pitch to high.

4. THEY'VE SHOWN US THAT YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET TOO CLOSE TO A PAIR OF COLLIDING BLACK HOLES.

Thanks to gravitational waves, we’re learning a lot about that most mysterious of objects, the black hole. When two black holes collide, they form an even bigger black hole—but not quite as large as you’d expect from simply adding up the masses of the two original black holes. That’s because some of the mass gets converted into energy, via Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2. The magnitude of the explosion is truly staggering.

As astronomer Duncan Brown told Mental Floss last June: “When a nuclear bomb explodes, you’re converting about a gram of matter—about the weight of a thumb-tack—into energy. Here, you’re converting the equivalent of the mass of the Sun into energy, in a tiny fraction of a second.” The blast could produce more energy than all the stars in the universe—for a split-second.

5. THEY MIGHT BE POWERFUL ENOUGH TO KICK A BLACK HOLE OUT OF A GALAXY.

This spring, astronomers discovered a “rogue” black hole moving speedily away from a distant galaxy known as 3C186, located some 8 billion light years from Earth. The black hole is believed to weigh as much as 1 billion Suns—which means it must have received quite a kick, to set it in motion (its speed was determined to be around 5 million miles per hour, or a bit less than 1 percent of the speed of light). Astronomers have suggested that the necessary energy may have come from gravitational waves produced by a pair of very heavy black holes that collided near the galaxy’s center.

But there’s still plenty we’d like to know about gravitational waves—and about the objects they let us probe. For example …

6. WE DON'T KNOW IF GRAVITATIONAL WAVES CONTRIBUTE TO "DARK MATTER."

Most of the mass of the universe—about 85 percent—is stuff we can’t see; astronomers call this unseen material “dark matter.” Exactly what this dark stuff is has been the subject of intense debate for decades. The leading theory is that dark matter is made up of exotic particles created soon after the big bang. But some physicists have speculated that so-called “primordial black holes”—black holes created in the first second of the universe’s existence—might make up a significant fraction of the mysterious dark matter. The theorists who back this idea say that it could help to explain the unusually high masses of the black hole binary systems that LIGO has detected so far.

7. WE DON'T KNOW IF THEY ARE EVIDENCE OF DIMENSIONS BEYOND THE ONES WE PERCEIVE.

Particle physicists and cosmologists have long speculated about the existence of “extra dimensions” beyond the four we experience (three for space and one for time). It was hoped that experiments at the Large Hadron Collider would offer hints of these dimensions, but no such evidence has turned up so far. Some physicists, however, suggest that gravitational waves might provide a clue. They speculate that gravity could freely spread out over all of the dimensions, perhaps explaining why gravity is such a weak force (it’s by far the weakest of the four known forces in nature). Further, they say that the existence of extra dimensions would leave their mark on the gravitational waves that we measure here on Earth. So, stay tuned: It’s only been a bit more than a year since we first detected gravitational waves; no doubt they have much more to tell us about our universe.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

Getty Images
Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

10 Juicy Facts About Leeches

Ian Cook
Ian Cook

Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we're finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. 

1. Not all leeches suck blood.

Hematophagous, or blood-feeding, species are only one type of leech. “The vast majority of species are [hematophagous],” Siddall tells Mental Floss, “but it depends on the environment. In North America, there are probably more freshwater leeches that don’t feed on blood than there are blood-feeders.” And even among the hematophagous species, there are not too many who are after you. “Very few of them are interested in feeding on human blood,” Siddall says. “Certainly they’ll do it, if they’re given the opportunity, but they’re not what they’re spending most of their time feeding on.” 

2. Leeches are everywhere.

Japanese leech on a log
Pieria, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

“Every continent on the planet has leeches, with the exception of Antarctica,” Siddall says. “And even then there are marine leeches in Antarctic waters.” Humans have co-existed with leeches for so long, according to Siddall, that just about every language has a word for leech. 

3. Leeches have made a comeback in medicine.

Bloodletting for bloodletting’s sake has fallen out of favor with Western physicians, but that doesn’t mean medicinal leeches are enjoying a cushy retirement. Today, surgeons keep them on hand in the operating room and use them as mini-vacuums to clean up blood. “That is a perfectly sensible use of leeches,” Siddall says. Other uses, though, are less sensible: “The more naturopathic application of leeches in order to get rid of bad blood or to cure, I don’t know, whatever happens to ail you, is complete hooey,” he says. How on Earth would leeches take away bad blood and leave good blood? It’s silly.” 

4. Novelist Amy Tan has her own species of leeches.

Land-based leeches made an appearance in Tan’s 2005 book Saving Fish from Drowning, a fact that instantly put the author in leech researchers’ good graces. “There are not a lot of novels out there with terrestrial leeches in them,” Siddall says. So when he and his colleagues identified a new species of tiny terrestrial leeches, they gave the leech Tan’s name. The author loved it. “I am thrilled to be immortalized as Chtonobdella tanae,” Tan said in a press statement. “I am now planning my trip to Queensland, Australia, where I hope to take leisurely walks through the jungle, accompanied by a dozen or so of my namesake feeding on my ankles.”

5. Leeches can get pretty big.

The giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii) can grow up to 18 inches and live up to 20 years. And yes, this one’s a blood-feeder. Like all hematophagous species, H. ghilianii sticks its proboscis (which can be up to 6 inches long) into a host, drinks its fill, and falls off. Scientists thought the species was extinct until a zoologist found two specimens in the 1970s, one of whom he named Grandma Moses. We are not making this up.

6. Leeches make good bait.

Many walleye anglers swear by leeches. “A leech on any presentation moves more than other types of live bait," pro fisher Jerry Hein told Fishing League Worldwide. "I grew up fishing them, and I think they're the most effective live bait around no matter where you go." There’s an entire leech industry to provide fishers with their bait. One year, weather conditions kept the leeches from showing up in their typical habitats, which prevented their collection and sale. Speaking to CBS news, one tackle shop owner called the absence of leeches “the worst nightmare in the bait industry.”

7. Leech scientists use themselves as bait.

Siddall and his colleagues collect and study wild leeches. That means hours of trekking through leech territory, looking for specimens. “Whether we’re wandering in water or traipsing through a bamboo forest,” Siddall says, “we are relying on the fact that leeches are attracted to us.” Do the leeches feed on them? “Oh my god, yes. We try to get them before they feed on us … but sometimes, obviously, you can’t help it.”

8. Leech sex is mesmerizing.

Like many worms, leeches are all hermaphroditic. The specifics of mating vary by species, but most twine themselves together and trade sperm packets. (The two leeches in the video above are both named Norbert.)

9. Some leech species make surprisingly caring parents. 

“There’s a whole family of leeches that, when they lay their eggs, will cover them with their own bodies,” Siddall says. “They’ll lay the eggs, cover them with their bodies, and fan the eggs to prevent fungus or bacteria from getting on them, and then when the eggs hatch, they will attach to the parent. They’re not feeding on the parent, just hanging on, and then when the parent leech goes to its next blood meal it’s carrying its offspring to its next blood meal. That’s pretty profound parental care, especially for invertebrates.”

10. You might be the next to discover a new leech species. 

Despite living side-by-side with leeches for thousands of years, we’ve still got a lot to learn about them. Scientists are aware of about 700 different species, but they know there are many more out there. “I’ll tell you what I wish for,” Siddall says. “If you ever get fed on by a leech, rather than tearing off and burning it and throwing it in the trash, maybe observe it and see if you can see any color patterns. Understand that there’s a real possibility that it could be a new species. So watch them, let them finish. They’re not gonna take much blood. And who knows? It could be scientifically useful.”

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