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Speaker Spotlight: What Is A Gravitational Wave?

One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein described a phenomenon called “gravitational waves”.  Though he laid the groundwork for many future scientific discoveries, Einstein himself was unable to verify many of his predictions, because technology had not yet caught up with the theory, and the instruments that could detect the phenomena he described had not yet been invented. Gravitational waves were in this group of discoveries that the scientific community of Einstein’s time could not prove or disprove through experiment.

Last week, the LIGO, operated jointly by Caltech and MIT, “observed ripples in the fabric of space time called gravitational waves,” according to a press release by Caltech. The LIGO, or Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, was founded to detect the waves that Einstein had described.

Just what is a gravitational wave, exactly? What could be large enough to cause a “ripple in the fabric of space time”? It sounds like something out of science fiction, but amazingly enough, it’s a scientific reality. Thanks to the LIGO, says Harvard astrophysicist and TEDxBeaconStreet Speaker Anjali Tripathi, “we can feel what’s happening in the universe.”

Anjali studies the formation and evolution of planets at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and last November, she gave an exciting talk about atmospheric escape. The recent discovery at the LIGO was a huge event, but it’s complicated to explain, so we asked Anjali to break it down for us. In response, she made this excellent video describing the phenomenon and just how the LIGO works. “Just like earthquakes generate seismic waves,” she says, “objects in space can cause gravitational waves, which cause space itself to shake or distort.”

This discovery is extremely exciting, for the scientific community and the world at large. “Just as da Vinci drew flying machines, which one day the Wright brothers turned into a plane,” said Anjali, “Einstein’s predictions have now been technologically realized and we’re entering a whole new unseen world of gravitational wave discovery.” Who knows what could happen next?

We’re very lucky to have Anjali as part of our community, and we appreciate the great video she made for us. Check it out to get a special TEDxBeaconStreet peek at this huge scientific milestone!