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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Gravitational Waves

Two black holes circle each other a billion light years away. (Illustration by LIGO.)

There are some amazing stories out there about the confirmed discovery of gravitational waves announced yesterday:

Yesterday a bunch of people asked me, when I retweeted a bunch of items about the announcement, what this discovery meant and why it mattered.

It’s two things. First, testing theories is one of the most important things about science. While gravitational waves have been assumed for ages, they were thought to be unmeasurable for a very long time. The result announced this week is experimental validation of a 101-year-old scientific theory that has dramatically changed our understanding of the universe. When you see people talking about Einstein being validated, this is what they’re talking about.

But the other thing is even more exciting: This isn’t the end of the story, but the beginning. The LIGO project didn’t just prove a scientific theory, it listened to faint ripples in the universe and observed the collision of two black holes a billion light-years away. (Our entire galaxy is only 100,000 light years across.) We now know details of an event that occurred very long ago and very far away, because we built an instrument that could listen for it.

We learned about the universe from visible light. We learned more when we built telescopes to see the visible light more closely. Then we built other telescopes to view the universe in electromagnetic wavelengths outside of visible light—radio waves, infrared light, ultraviolet, even gamma rays. And we learned much, much more.

Now we have another kind of telescope, one that listens to the very fluctuation of space itself. And we’ll learn even more about our universe because of it. That’s very exciting, because every time we look into a place in the universe we’ve never seen before, we see something unexpected that teaches us something new about how our world works.

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