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The Sounds of Spacetime

In the biggest events in the universe, massive black holes collide with a chirp and a ring. Physicists are finding ways to listen in

Craig Hogan

Figure 2. Snapshot from a simulation where a series of circular rings are deformed by a passing gravitational waveClick to Enlarge Image

However silent the twinkling stars seem in the clear night sky, Einstein's theory of spacetime tells us that the real universe is a noisy place, alive with vibrating energy. Space and time, says Craig Hogan, carry a cacophony of vibrations with textures and timbres as rich and varied as the din of sounds in a tropical rain forest or the finale of a Wagnerian opera. A space-based antenna now being designed will complement terrestrial laser interferometers to allow astronomers  to listen to these rumblings—gravitational waves that depict the death dances of neutron stars or the collisions of massive black holes in distant galaxies. Hogan says the waves will map distant reaches of the universe, tell us much about spacetime itself—and possibly detect whispering evidence of cosmic strings.


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