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Wed, Oct. 23

Embry-Riddle profs: Gravitational waves detected 100 years after Einstein's prediction

For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of space-time called gravitational waves, arriving at Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.

"This is as revolutionary as when Galileo built the first telescope," said Dr. Michele Zanolin, an astrophysicist and professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Zanolin explained that every mass that moves in the universe produces waves even if they don't produce light. Using laser technology, scientists were able to prove this by detecting and translating such waves.

In other words, scientists now know for sure they can essentially listen to the universe.

"It's a little bit like our ears are able to measure vibrations in the pressure of the air, and then our brain decodes that pressure vibration into what the sound means," he said.

Zanolin is one of three professors at ERAU who have been deeply involved in the design and construction of the two devices responsible for detecting these gravitational waves.

The devices, called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, are located in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.

Each is 2.5 miles by 2.5 miles in size and consist of lasers that bounce back and forth on mirrors. It took about 40 years and $1 billion to develop and construct them.

These are the only two LIGO detectors currently operating, but others are either nearly complete or being built in Italy, Japan and India.

Zanolin has been working on the project for about 10 years and never exactly knew when or if the project would ever come to anything. With this news, however, he feels as though he and his colleagues have discovered a whole new continent.

"It's probably a little bit like when Columbus first saw the coast of the Americas," Zanolin said.

Now that it is known gravitational waves can indeed be recorded, Zanolin expects this form of science to expand drastically.

"We are going to keep improving the instrument and point it in every place of the universe to hear what's going on," Zanolin said.

If any schools or students in the area are interested in learning more about the discovery and its relevance, Zanolin said he is more than willing to share his experience and knowledge. He can be reached by emailing

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