How The LIGO Observatory Detects Gravitational Waves

Gravity is one of the more obvious forces in the universe, generally regarded as easily noticeable by the way apples fall from trees. However, the underlying mechanisms behind gravity are inordinately complex, and the subject of much study to this day.

A major component of this study is around the concept of gravitational waves. First posited by Henri Poincaré in 1905, and later a major component of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, they’re a phenomena hunted for by generations of physicists ever since. For the team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, finding direct evidence of gravitational waves is all in a day’s work.

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About Those Gravitational Waves

It was the year of 1687 when Isaac Newton published “The Principia“, which revealed the first mathematical description of gravity. Newton’s laws of motion along with his description of gravity laid before the world a revolutionary concept that could be used to describe everything from the motions of heavenly bodies to a falling apple. Newton would remain the unequivocal king of gravity for the next several hundred years. But that would all change at the dawn of the 20th century when a young man working at a Swiss patent office began to ask some profound questions. Einstein had come to the conclusion that Newtonian physics was not adequate to describe the findings of the emerging electromagnetic field theories.  In 1905, he published a paper entitled “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which corrects Newton’s laws so they work when describing the motions of objects near the speed of light. This new description became known as Special Relativity.

It was ‘Special’ because it didn’t deal with gravity or acceleration. It would take Einstein another 10 years to work these two concepts into his relativity theory. He called it General Relativity – an understanding of which is necessary to fully grasp the significance of gravitational waves.

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