Scientists find evidence of gravitational waves warping space-time throughout the cosmos

Albert Einstein proposed in 1916 that the universe was constantly being pushed and stretched by space-time waves undulating throughout the universe. A group of scientists won the Nobel Prize for finding proof of these waves in 2016, using a laser interferometer to detect a high-frequency gravitational wave emanating from the collision of two black holes or neutron stars less than 100 times the mass of the sun.

Scientists around the world announced late Wednesday that after 15 years, they have taken the next big step, observing the "low-pitch hum of gravitational waves resounding throughout the universe and washing through our galaxy to warp space-time in a measurable way," as Vanderbilt gravitational wave astrophysicist Stephen Taylor explained.

Taylor co-led the research at the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) collective, which coordinated the simultaneous publication of independent but mutually corroborative papers by scientists in China, India, Europe and Australia. These scientists all measured the space-time oscillations by observing gradual shifts in the steady beat of radio wave emissions from dozens of pulsars, or rapidly spinning dead stars.

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"It's really the first time that we have evidence of just this large-scale motion of everything in the universe," said NANOGrav co-director Maura McLaughlin. The scientists said they have a high degree of confidence the waves they detected were started by pairs of supermassive black holes circling each other in hundreds of thousands of galaxies as far as 10 billion light years away. These enormous black holes typically have the mass of millions or billions of suns.

Gravitational waves can be created by any object that spins, like the rotating remains of dead stars, a pair of black holes, or even two people "doing a do-si-do," Yale astrophysicist and NANOGrav member Chiara Mingarelli told The New York Times. The newly recorded waves stretch and squeeze the fabric of the universe, warping the distance between any planets or other objects they touch, as Columbia University physicist Brian Greene illustrated on The Colbert Report in 2016.

While the low-frequency waves announced Wednesday likely originated with rotating black holes, they could also have come from "hypothetical cracks in space-time known as cosmic strings" or even the Big Bang, the Times reported. "It sounds very sci-fi," Mingarelli said. "But it's for real."

These waves do not "put any torque on everyday human existence," The Washington Post said. "There is not a weight-loss discovery in here somewhere. A burble of gravitational waves cannot explain why some days you feel out of sorts. But it does offer potential insight into the physical reality we all inhabit." Researchers have already started to use the data to put together maps of the universe, the Times reported, seeking to locate the supermassive black holes and "even more exotic phenomena, like galactic jets, cosmic strings or wormholes."

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