Making giant strides
of GW150914, the length changed by less than one-thousandth of the size of a proton.
The challenges in detecting such a small change were enormous, given the various types of noise that could influence the measurement and destroy its integrity. LIGO dug the tiny, short chirp out from the omnipresent chaos of space by comparing the measurements of the two interferometers. The noise at one is not correlated with the noise at the other —unlike the signal from a passing gravitational wave, which would occur first at one location and then the other. The signal from GW150914 coincided with such impressive accuracy that any possibility of it being a spurious chance event was excluded.
LIGO’s success is not only a triumph of technology; it is also — and more importantly — the result of a century of work by theorists on mathematical descriptions of gravitational waves — not just Einstein, but also Leopold Infeld, Joshua Goldberg, Richard Feynman, Felix Pirani, Ivor Robinson, Hermann Bondi, and André Lichnerowicz.
LIGO’s discovery, specifically, was made possible by the Polish physicist Andrzej Trautman, who provided gravitational wave theory with sharp mathematical rigor, and the French physicist Thibault Damour, who developed practical mathematical tools for using observed wave fronts to decipher information about the waves’ sources. Their work established the solid mathematical base of the theory that made the success of LIGO possible.
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity is mankind’s greatest intellectual achievement. And yet nobody has received a Nobel Prize for developing its mathematical foundations. The prize has been given to experimental physicists who made observational confirmations of some of the theory’s important predictions. And it has been given to quantum physicists for purely mathematical works. But it has never been awarded to a pure theorist researching relativity.
Measurements of gravitational waves will not only provide insights into phenomena that until now were completely out of reach. The Theory of General Relativity describes large-scale physical phenomena: Humans, rocks, planets, stars, galaxies, the entire universe. Quantum Mechanics, on the other hand, is equally successful at describing the universe at the smallest scales: Quarks, electrons, atoms and molecules.
Many physicists are convinced that these problems indicate a missing ingredient in our understanding of the fundamental principles of nature. In desperation, often mixed with arrogance, some are suggesting completely crazy quantum-gravity concepts, including bizarre alternatives for standard Einsteinian black holes — with no experimental foundation.
As a result, for many physicists today, the genuinely fundamental problem of reconciling the two theories has degenerated into pompous, meaningless humbug. What is needed are solid experimental facts to sweep away all this nonsense and perhaps even inspire a solution to the dilemma. And that is exactly what future measurements of gravitational waves could provide. The writer is professor of Theoretical Physics at Goteborg University, Sweden. Project Syndicate