First, hurray for science--and tax dollar funded science at that! The two laboratories in the United States that made this discovery are funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF), which also funds countless other research programs ranging from the origins of the cosmos to anthropogenic climate change. As a taxpayer, we should all take pride in the fact that we supported this fascinating scientific breakthrough. This project took vision, and the continued support from NSF and the federal government made this discovery possible. Further, the USA did not go it alone on this project, but was joined with collaborating nations the world over. Together, an international consortia of scientists, engineers, technicians, and students from diverse disciplines made this advancement possible. Cheers to collaborations and to standing on the shoulders of giants!
So how was this discovery made? Two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) facilities in Louisiana and Washington (as a part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration) detected the merging of two black holes (each being 2-3x the mass of our sun). This cosmic explosion set off ripples in the form of gravitational waves that permeated through the cosmos -- and scientists were able to detect this galactic groundswell with stunning clarity. The astounding part of this, as if the fact that black holes are no longer a think of theory or science fiction, was that this event occurred over 1 billion years ago! I haven't seen estimates of how fast this wave was traveling, but this should give you an idea of how massive the universe truly is.
Below, listen to the "chirp" from behind the curtain of a 1 billion year old gravitational wave!
The executive director of LIGO at the California Institute of Technology gave the best description of this: "It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us in gravitational waves." Such an amazing statement. This finding blows open a whole new field of astronomy (gravitational astronomy) and provides an new perspective to Einstein's century old theory. A fundamental beauty of this discovery is the strength of the scientific method: new observations were made, new testable hypotheses were generated, and the data we've collected now can reinforce or augment the theory of general relativity. It is a blessing that we have an empirical system such as science to help us understand the cosmos and our place within it. Personally, I can't wait for a Neal deGrasse Tyson, the Sir David Attenborough of the cosmos, to give a lecture or podcast on this. TED talk--I'm speaking to you!
I'm not a physicist! But I can certainly appreciate how amazing this discovery is and how exciting it is to be alive in these times. With all the bad publicity humanity receives, it is nice to hear of people and nations working together. Further, this should help us all see how minimal we are in the universe. Put frankly, the fusion of these black holes occurred just after eukaryotic cells evolved on Earth (2.0-1.8 bya)! Yet, here I am writing about it on a computer that itself is an impossibility to my parent's generation.
In closing: Science moves in leaps and bounds. After a century of research and theorizing, in one day scientists were able to confirm (1) black holes can largely be accepted as real and no longer theoretical, (2) we can measure gravitational waves--and they exist! However this discovery would not have been possible had we not laid the groundwork for the LIGO facility in the 1980s and the continued support of its research--including recent upgrades approved during the last decade.
The message here is really that science takes time and hard work can pay off! Perhaps more importantly for you, me, and John Q. Public to realize is that this transformative discovery would not have been possible without federal funding, tax payer dollars, and the vision of scientists and legislators to appropriate funds towards projects that can move humanity forward. In this, there is a message for addressing climate change, energy independence, and the myriad of other problems facing humanity.
Where will this discover take us? I don't think anyone could say--but it may be safe to say that this advancement may be a game changer for the fields of astronomy, physics, quantum mechanics, and I'm exited for the future! Need more info?! Check out these links and videos!