While working on his doctorate in theoretical physics in the early 1970s, Saul Teukolsky solved a problem that seemed purely hypothetical. Imagine a black hole, the ghostly knot of gravity that forms when, say, a massive star burns out and collapses to an infinitesimal point. Suppose you perturb it, as you might strike a bell. How does the black hole respond?
Teukolsky, then a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), attacked the problem with pencil, paper, and Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, general relativity. Like a bell, the black hole would oscillate at one main frequency and multiple overtones, he found. The oscillations would quickly fade as the black hole radiated gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of space itself. It was a sweet problem, says Teukolsky, now at Cornell University. And it was completely abstract—until 5 years ago.
In February 2016, experimenters with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a pair of huge instruments in Louisiana and Washington, reported the first observation of fleeting gravitational ripples, which had emanated from two black holes, each about 30 times as massive as the Sun, spiraling into each other 1.3 billion light-years away. LIGO even sensed the “ring down”: the shudder of the bigger black hole produced by the merger. Teukolsky’s old thesis was suddenly cutting-edge physics.
“The thought that anything I did would ever have implications for anything measurable in my lifetime was so far-fetched that the last 5 years have seemed like living in a dream world,” Teukolsky says. “I have to pinch myself, it doesn’t feel real.”
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