British physicist Stephen Hawking says the detection of gravitational waves provides a completely new way of looking at the universe, and is at least as important as thedetection of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider.
The results reported by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory mark the first-ever observations of a black hole merger, and the first of what’s expected to be many observations of gravitational waves. “The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionize astronomy,” Hawking told the BBC after LIGO’s announcement on Feb. 11.
The waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, set off in the course of gravitational interactions. Their existence was predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity a century ago, but until now, no instruments were sensitive enough to detect them.
LIGO uses two sets of L-shaped detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. Each detector takes advantage of finely tuned, cross-interfering lasers to register distortions in spacetime that are tinier than one ten-thousandth of the size of a proton.
In addition to confirming a key claim of general relativity, LIGO’s readings provide the best evidence to date that black holes actually exist.