Physicists Spot Einstein's Gravitational Waves for the First Time

SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago
SXS Collaboration, University of Chicago

Simulation of two merging black holes in front of the Milky Way. Scientists said the Sept. 14 event was so intense that in the moment before the colliding black holes swallowed each other, they emitted more energy than the rest of the universe combined.

After a decades-long search, physicists have managed to detect ethereal ripples in the very fabric of space, known as gravitational waves—triggered in this case by the death-spiral of a pair of merging black holes—and snared by a sophisticated detector known as LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. The discovery is being described as one of the great physics breakthroughs of the decade, on par with the 2012 discovery of the Higgs boson, and very likely Nobel Prize–worthy.

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist at Arizona State University and author of The Physics of Star Trek, told mental_floss that the discovery “monumental.” The new technology will allow astronomers “to peer into parts of the universe that we’d never could have seen otherwise,” Krauss said. More than that, it will pave the way for a new era in astronomy, one in which gravitational waves will be used to study a wide array of all astrophysical phenomena, many of them never before open to scientific scrutiny. “It’s opened up a whole new window on the universe,” he said—a metaphor that’s been echoed by many of the physicists and astronomers who have been weighing in excitedly on the discovery.

The discovery was unveiled Thursday morning at a packed Washington DC press conference organized by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research (with simultaneous presentations by partner institutions in at least four other countries).

The gravitational waves recorded by the LIGO detectors were the result of the violent merger of two black holes, located some 1.3 billion light-years from Earth, explained Gabriela González, a physicist at Louisiana State University and a spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration. One of the black holes was determined to have a mass 29 times that of our Sun, the other was even heavier, with a mass equal to 36 Suns. Although LIGO can only roughly pin down the direction of the signal, González said the black hole pair—now a single black hole, following the cataclysmic merger—is located in the southern sky, roughly in the direction of the Magellanic Clouds, the Milky Way’s small companion galaxies (of course, the black holes are far more distant).

The black hole pair had been locked in mutual orbit for hundreds of millions of years, gradually losing energy through the emission of gravitational waves, and then finally emitting one last “death burst” as the two objects merged into a single entity, González said. “What we saw is from only the last fraction of a second before the merger,” she told mental_floss.

The waves created from that final blast then rippled across the cosmos. After more than a billion years, some of those waves washed silently past Earth on September 14 of last year, where they triggered a tiny “blip” at each of the two identical LIGO detectors (one located in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana).

Incredibly, the team of researchers managed to keep the discovery relatively secret for almost six months. When the initial signal was recorded, Caltech physicist Kip Thorne received an e-mail from a colleague. “He said, ‘LIGO may have detected gravitational waves; go and look at this,’” referring Thorne to initial data posted on a private LIGO webpage. “I looked at it, and I said, ‘My god—this may be it!’” Thorne told mental_floss. (Thorne played a key role in the early development of LIGO and is known not only for writing some of the most-read books on gravitational physics, but for his collaboration with Carl Sagan on the book Contact, and with the makers of the smash sci-fi film Interstellar.)

Not everyone was quite so tight-lipped—and in fact rumors had been circulating for weeks leading up to Thursday’s announcement (as mental_floss reported last month). A few people got an early look at the results and couldn’t contain their excitement. McMaster University physicist Clifford Burgess emailed some of the details to colleagues in his department, and the news quickly spilled out via social media. (Burgess described the discovery as “off-the-scale huge.”)

And while there have been a somewhat alarming number of super-hyped physics “discoveries” that failed to pan out in recent years—remember the faster-than-light neutrinos?—the LIGO researchers claim to have ruled out any possible non-gravitational-wave explanation for the signal they recorded. The finding is being published in the peer-reviewed journal Physics Review Letters (the “discovery paper” was released yesterday morning, February 11), along with a series of further papers.

It’s a discovery nearly a quarter-century in the making: LIGO was spearheaded by Caltech and MIT in 1992, and now involves nearly 1000 researchers from the UK, Germany, Australia, and beyond. With a total cost of more than $600 million, LIGO is the largest project ever funded by NSF.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, based on his newly developed theory of gravity, known as general relativity, in 1915. Gravitational waves are literally ripples in spacetime, created whenever massive objects throw their weight around—for example, when ultra-dense stars, known as neutron stars, collide, or when a star blows up in a supernova. In fact, any time masses accelerate, gravitational waves are produced—even doing dumbbell-lifts at the gym would produce them—but such waves would be infinitesimally weak, and quite impossible to measure. Even the waves from the black hole merger were so faint that they required the massive LIGO detectors to finally pick them up.

“It’s just really, tremendously exciting,” physicist Clifford Will of the University of Florida, one of the world’s leading authorities on general relativity, told mental_floss. “We’ve just finished celebrating the 100th anniversary of GR [general relativity], so this is icing on the cake.”

David Spergel, a physicist at Princeton, tweeted: “Up to now, we have only seen the universe. Now, for the first time, we can hear," adding, "The universe is playing a beautiful tune and LIGO just heard it.”

Gravitational waves alternately stretch and shrink space, by a tiny amount, as they pass by. Inside each of the LIGO detectors, laser beams bounce back and forth between mirrors attached to weights. A passing gravitational wave causes a slight change in the distance the laser beam travels, which leaves a telltale pattern (known as an interference pattern) in the recorded laser light. (Having two detectors located more than 2000 miles apart helps rule out false-alarm signals that might register at only one site.)

“We saw the same waveform—the same signal—in the two detectors,” González told mental_floss. Recording such signals by chance might happen “once in every 200,000 years,” she said.

LIGO went online in 2002, but with only a fraction of its current sensitivity. The detectors were upgraded last fall in an effort known as “Advanced LIGO.” The actual stretching caused by the passing gravitational wave is mind-bogglingly small, causing the detectors to grow or shrink in length by a distance equivalent to just 1/1000th of the width of a proton.

The success of the LIGO detectors is “a wonderful testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the scientists,” Krauss said. “I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime.”

Astronomers and physicists expect the new technique to reveal the universe in a new light, as the first optical telescopes did when Galileo first used them to study the night sky 400 years ago, and as the first radio telescopes did in the mid-20th century.

Editor's note: This story has been significantly updated to include input from a main LIGO researcher and additional outside experts, as well as with more comprehensive details about the extraordinary find.

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.”