Colliding black holes tell new story of stars

Natalie Wolchover writes: At a talk last month in Santa Barbara, California, addressing some of the world’s leading astrophysicists, Selma de Mink cut to the chase. “How did they form?” she began.

“They,” as everybody knew, were the two massive black holes that, more than 1 billion years ago and in a remote corner of the cosmos, spiraled together and merged, making waves in the fabric of space and time. These “gravitational waves” rippled outward and, on Sept. 14, 2015, swept past Earth, strumming the ultrasensitive detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). LIGO’s discovery, announced in February, triumphantly vindicated Albert Einstein’s 1916 prediction that gravitational waves exist. By tuning in to these tiny tremors in space-time and revealing for the first time the invisible activity of black holes — objects so dense that not even light can escape their gravitational pull — LIGO promised to open a new window on the universe, akin, some said, to when Galileo first pointed a telescope at the sky.

Already, the new gravitational-wave data has shaken up the field of astrophysics. In response, three dozen experts spent two weeks in August sorting through the implications at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) in Santa Barbara.[Continue reading…]

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