The Hunt for Gravitational Waves

April 30th, 2014

In remote, interconnected facilities located in Louisiana and Washington State, more than 900 people are working to detect gravitational waves—ripples in space-time caused by violent cosmic events. Why are so many researchers dedicating their careers to searching for something so elusive?

The men and women at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) answer that question in a new 20-minute documentary by Kai Staats. Through interviews and demonstrations, LIGO, A Passion for Understanding, breaks down this sophisticated science and explores its significance. This research is managed by MIT and CalTech and funded by the NSF.

Einstein’s general theory of relativity has mostly been proven, says Whitman College professor Greg Ogin in the film, but “There’s one little prediction left, that there should be waves in the fabric of space-time. The fact that we’re able to push the edge of technology where we’re hoping to see them quite soon is exciting, and is pushing the boundaries of understanding.”

At LIGO, researchers measure “the time it takes light to travel between suspended mirrors with high precision using controlled laser light.” The evidence of space-time ripples that they hope to observe using this technique is incredibly small, about one-ten-thousandth the size of a proton.

“Until now we’ve been deaf to what’s happening in the universe. We’re about to turn on our ears,” says Jameson Rollins, an interferometer automation scientist at LIGO CalTech. “Once we started looking up at the sky with telescopes, we didn’t stop doing it. Once we see gravitational waves, we’re never going to stop listening for gravitational waves. This is the beginning of a whole new timeline.”

Infographic: How Project LIGO works

Learn about the research of MIT’s Nergis Mavalvala, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics who won a MacArthur Fellowship for her part in developing LIGO, in the Spring 2014 “Discovery Issue” of MIT SPECTRVM (“Era of Astronomical Discovery”).

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