February 10, 2016

Cornell Scientists Validate Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

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Cornell professors Saul Teukolsky, astrophysics, and Larry Kidder, astronomy, played an instrumental role in the first detection of gravitational waves, a century after Albert Einstein predicted their existence in his theory of general relativity.

Directed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the Virgo group — a collaboration dedicated to studying gravitational waves — research published today in Physical Review Letters reveals findings that further verify Einstein’s theory, according to a University press release.

“It’s a really big event,” Teukolsky said in the release. “This is probably the most exciting episode of my professional career.”

The gravitational waves scientists detected came from the collision of two black holes far from the galaxy. Einstein predicted the existence of these waves exactly a century ago in 1916, according to the University.

According to Einstein’s theory of general relativity, all matter has a distorting effect on time and space. When incredibly massive objects are disturbed — like in the collision of two black holes — relativity predicts that they can cause ripples or in spacetime, which manifest as gravitational waves.

Teukolsky said this success is the culmination of more than 40 years of research, “since I was a graduate student in 1970.”

“I started trying to use computers to solve [theoretical relativity] problems in 1980,” he said.

General relativity had been modeled by Teukolsky and others, but before the Caltech and Virgo team’s discovery, many astrophysicists doubted it could be detected.

However, in Sep. 2015 — soon after the opening of the Laser Interferometer Gravity-Wave Observatory, which was built specifically for the project — researchers found two black holes orbiting each other at more than half the speed of light and spent months confirming these results, according to the University.

The LIGO and Virgo group confirmed that these gravitational waves had come from the collision of black holes by comparing their data with a theoretical model developed at Cornell. Teukolsky and the Cornell-founded Simulation of eXtreme Spacetimes collaboration group have been developing this model since 2000, according to the University.

Only in the past 15 years have supercomputers become “powerful enough to tackle [general relativity],” Teukolsky said.
Teukolsky credited LIGO and Virgo group, who did the experimentation, for the discovery.

“The glory in this discovery goes to the experimenters, who have pulled off an amazing tour de force,” he said.“But it’s exciting to have played a role in helping to confirm that the source of the waves is the collision of two black holes.”