Five hundred years ago, people in the supposedly civilized world of that time believed that men had one rib less than women. The Bible told them that God used one of man's ribs to make a woman.
Nobody bothered to open up a man and count. And nobody asked the people in other parts of the world who ate human flesh how many ribs men had. That ignorance persisted until Flemish anatomist, Andreas Vesalius, in 1543 opened up a man and found out that he had the same number of ribs as a woman.
It would take another 400 years before German scientist, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, in 1895 discovered the X-ray. With the discovery of X-ray we no longer need to open up a man before we can find out how many ribs he has or which bone is broken or where the coin he swallowed is lodged.
Until Thursday, February 11, 2016, our universe has been like man- 500 years ago. We cannot touch it. We cannot open it up. We do not know much of what is inside of it. We call most parts of it dark matter, black holes, supernova.
And then, we got an X-ray, sort of.
I don't know what you were doing on Thursday, February 11th, 2016, but chances are that 200 years from now, nobody will remember. What nobody will forget 1000 years from now is that on that day, Albert Einstein's theory of relativity was proven right. And with that accomplishment, the 200-year-old arc of wonders started by Michael Faraday and advanced by Albert Einstein was completed.
Before February 11, 2016, the questions being asked were: Is there a limit to science? What comes after science has ended? How are the questions that science cannot answer different from the answers that religion cannot prove? If laws created the universe as Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen Hawking argued in “The Grand Design,” who created the laws? Do laws really make things happen? If the universe did not create itself, then who created the universe? If God created the universe, then who created God? Why is the universe there? What is the universe expanding into? Where did time and space come from and what were they before they came into existence.
It is in the nature of science to first study what we know and expand on it by making a guess- a hypothesis. Using complex tests and equations that originate from known laws, scientists predict what they believe is out there- a theory. It is then followed by the difficult task of proving it in experiments that can be replicated.
The last big puzzle piece of Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravitational waves, was a path to finding answers to these questions about our place in the universe. For the last 50 years, the National Science Foundation had spent over a billion dollars trying to find the gravitational waves. In the last 25 years, the foundation has spent half of the money supporting two facilities for this purpose in a project called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington. The facilities house two 4-km long tunnels emptied of all air and at right angles with a mirror at the end. A laser beam split into two was sent down one tunnel and reflected back where they are recombined. When gravitational waves pass the LIGO lasers they will change the pattern of the laser light. Over one thousand scientists from around the world were working on the project.
The simplest way to explain gravitational waves is that when you drop a coin in a bucket of water it causes ripples. Likewise, when mass moves in the universe it bends time and space, which in turn causes ripples. This ripple is the gravitational waves. It is often referred to as the ripple in the space-time curvature.
On September 11, 2015, the two LIGO facilities detected gravitational waves in space. The one in Louisiana picked it up first and 7 milliseconds later, the one in Washington picked the same waves up. The gravitational waves occurred 1.3 billion years ago when two massive black holes about 30 times the mass of the sun and travelling at half the speed of light collided. Remember, 1.3 billion years ago when humans had not appeared on earth and when we were beginning to see the spread of multicellular life here on earth.
This is how big a deal this is. In 2012, the CERN’s discovery of the Higgs particle solidified the standard model of physics and opened up new ways to understand our physical world. With the detection of gravitational waves, our interaction with our universe has changed forever. Not only did this discovery prove Einstein’s theory of relativity, it also proves the existence of a binary black hole.
Since Michael Faraday discovered the electromagnetic induction in 1831, scientists have been fascinated about how energy is transported. Working off Faraday’s law, James Clerk Maxwell discovered that magnetic fields and electrical fields when coupled together lead to electromagnetic waves. While mechanical waves need a medium to travel through, electromagnetic waves do not. Meanwhile, German physicist Heinrich Hertz applied Maxwell's theories to his work on radio waves. He proved that the velocity of radio waves was equal to the velocity of light and as such radio waves were a form of light. He also figured out how electric and magnetic fields transform into electromagnetic waves.
With an electromagnetic wave, scientists were able to see objects that emit visible light, like X-rays and gamma rays. That could only show us objects further back 400,000 years after the big bang. Beyond that, we were blind. Light could not penetrate the earliest period of the universe due to interstellar dust. Objects in those spaces do not emit electromagnetic radiations but instead they emit gravity.
Unlike electromagnetic waves, gravitational waves will pass through any matter without being distorted. In gravitational waves, we can retrieve information about astronomical events that happened billions of years ago. With the discovery of the gravitational waves, we will be able to see what happened at the initial singularity. Which means it is now possible to find out what happened seconds after the Big Bang.
It is going to change everything we think we know.
When Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1915, it was not clear how to unify forces of nature and quantum gravity. As scientists start to 'hear' and 'see' black holes, those remnants of dead stars, the possibilities are endless.
Scientists say that the discovery of gravitational waves is like a deaf person hearing for the first time or a blind person seeing for the first time. "It's like Galileo pointing the telescope for the first time toward the sky," LIGO team member Vassiliki (Vicky) Kalogera, a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University in Illinois, told Space.com.
Within the reach of scientists is an understanding of the inner workings of the black hole; what happens in a supernova; what are dead matter; and a possible look inside of the burnt-out stellar corpse called neutron stars- a teaspoon of a neutron material weighs up to a billion tons.
An advanced LIGO three times more sensitive than the old LIGO that discovered the gravitational waves is already in place to take mankind to a new frontier.
Michael Faraday’s work on electricity and electromagnetic induction made it possible for us to have electricity, satellite, cell phone, cars, internet, and all the modern gadgets that make us have a better understanding of our world. With the discovery of the gravitational waves, we can now understand better how galaxies and stars are formed and their evolution. One thing is for sure- just like the X-ray, the radio wave and the electromagnetic waves have enhanced our knowledge of our place in the universe, gravitational waves is poised to lead us to objects we never imagined.
Scientists have crashed into God’s bedroom and in the fullness of time, it will be clear that our understanding of our place in the universe has changed forever.
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo's latest work is This American Life Sef! It is available on Amazon.com