That Time the Galaxy Ripped Itself Apart

Do you remember that time back in 1969 when the entire galaxy ripped itself apart?  No?  Me neither.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a physics seminar at Princeton University.  The presenter was Dr. Beverly Berger of LIGO.  She was there to tell us all about the discovery of gravitational waves.

Part of Dr. Berger’s presentation was historical.  There were attempts to detect gravitational waves before the LIGO experiment.  The first such attempt was conducted by Joseph Weber of the University of Maryland.  Weber’s idea was that gravitational waves would cause solid objects to expand and contract ever so slightly.  This expansion and contraction would produce friction and thus heat.

In principle, this change in temperature could be measured.  So Weber constructed a giant metal cylinder to serve as a gravitational wave detector (click here to see a picture of it).  And in 1969, Weber detected his first gravitational wave!  Or at least he thought he did. There was a tiny pulse in his data which, as Dr. Berger described it in her presentation, indicated that gravitational waves were emanating from the center of our galaxy!

Except no one was able to confirm Weber’s findings, and the discovery was widely discredited as a result.  But of course we now know, thanks to LIGO, that gravitational waves do exist.  We also know (or at least we strongly suspect) that there is a supermassive black hole in the center of our galaxy, right where Weber’s gravitational waves supposedly came from.

Given all that we now know, I think it’s fair to ask if Joseph Weber might have detected gravitational waves after all.  Someone in the auditorium did, in fact, ask that question.  But no, it’s absolutely impossible.  Weber’s instruments simply weren’t sensitive enough.

According to Dr. Berger, the only way Weber’s gravitational wave detector would have detected gravitational waves is if the entire galaxy had suddenly ripped itself apart.  Obviously that didn’t happen. The galaxy is still here. [citation needed]

P.S.: I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Beverly Berger several times now.  It’s sort of a friend of a friend situation.  Anyway, Dr. Berger has very kindly introduced me to a new scientific term.  I’ll have that for you in Friday’s episode of Sciency Words!

13 thoughts on “That Time the Galaxy Ripped Itself Apart

  1. Looking for a black hole is a bit like looking for a black cat in a coal cellar, However as J. Michell logically pointed out a black hole exerts gravitational force on nearby objects, so its interesting watching stars in the sky orbiting each other and other lone stars orbiting on their own!

    Liked by 1 person

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