Artist's illustration of two neutron stars merging.
Image: nasa

Billions of years ago, two black holes merged in a violent explosion that rippled the fabric of our universe.

Those cosmic ripples known as gravitational waves produced by this collision spread far and wide in all directions, carrying with them information about the black holes that brought them into being.

In September 2015, that information made it to Earth. While these weren’t the first gravitational waves to reach our planet, they were the first we could observe.

Two powerful tools known as theLaser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) were able to directly observe the gravitational waves sent out by the two black holes, opening up a new way for scientists to study the inner-workings of some of the most extreme objects in the universe.

Until now, scientists studying the cosmos were limited to just staring at our universe using different wavelengths of light.

Artist’s illustration of colliding black holes.

Image: LIGO

While this type of investigation has completely transformed our understanding of how stars, galaxies, planets and other objects work, it also has left us in the dark when trying to understand the inner lives of black holes and other exotic objects.

All of that is changing now, however.

In the not too distant future, scientists should be able to peer into the hearts of exploding stars, figure out how matter is changed within the hot, high-pressure center of a neutron star, and better characterize what a black hole really is all thanks to barely-detectable waves sent out to the far ends of the observable universe.

Being an astronomer right now, as gravitational wave science begins in earnest is “kind of the equivalent of being there when Galileo put together his first telescope,” scientist Edo Berger, who is involved in LIGO-related research, said in an interview.

A light turning on

The entire history of astronomy has hinged on studying the universe with light, but now, we have an entirely different way to peer out into the cosmos. It’s as if astronomy as we know it has gained a new sense.

Instead of trying to look directly at something like a black hole that doesn’t give off light, astronomers can now piece apart the “chirps” of gravitational waves to learn more about the masses, sizes and lives of the objects that created them.

“… Using gravitational waves we can probe environments that are enshrouded with a lot of matter which blocks our view,” Harvard University astronomer Avi Loeb said via email.

“For example, when a massive star collapses or when a neutron star gets swallowed by a stellar-mass black hole, or when two massive black holes coalesce while being surrounded by gas duringthe merger of two galaxies, we cannot easily probe the center of the action because it is hidden behind a veil of matter,” Loeb added.

“But gravitational waves can penetrate easily through matter and reveal the inner working of such engines. “

Image: Bob Al-greene/mashable

You can’t feel or see gravitational waves move through Earth’s part of space, but they do affect us nonetheless.

In fact, the signal discovered in September warped all of the matter on Earth including all of the matter in our bodies by just a fraction of a proton.

And that’s what LIGO had to measure. Both observatories one located in Louisiana, another in Washington recorded the moment the gravitational waves passed through Earth’s part of space at the same time.

The twin “L”-shaped observatories both have a laser that runs down each arm of the L to mirrors located at the end of the arms. If no gravitational waves pass through Earth, the lasers should each bounce back to the middle at precisely the same time, but if a wave were to pass through, that timing would be off.

This is because the matter around the laser stretches ever so slightly as the wave passes through, changing the length of the arms but not affecting the light itself.

“What LIGO had to do to detect the waves was to measure the motion of mirrors (due to the passing gravitational wave) that was smaller than a single proton,” LIGO researcher Nergis Mavalvala said.

“Imagine that, put mirrors 4km (2.5 miles) apart and watch them get closer or farther to each other by a distance one-one-thousandth the size of a proton.”

Discoveries already pouring in

Scientists have already analyzed data brought to Earth by the gravitational waves discovered in September, characterizing the black holes that created those ripples like never before.

A study published in June 2016 found that the two black holes which gave rise to the gravitational waves actually began their lives as massive stars orbiting one another.

Eventually, after millions of years in orbit around one another, the stars collapsed, forming two black holes about 30 times the mass of our sun. And one day, those black holes merged, rippling the fabric of space and time like a bowling ball spinning around on a bed sheet.

The authors of the study used data gathered by LIGO to create a computer model of the universe that would have given rise to the gravitational waves detected here on Earth billions of years after the black hole merger.

“The black holes were monsters, and the results show that their progenitor stars would have been some of the brightest and most massive in the universe,” physicist J.J. Eldridge wrote in a piece accompanying the study at the time.

Neutron stars and a new state of matter

LIGO should eventually do even more than reveal the secret lives of black holes as well.

In the future, astrophysicists are hoping to use gravitational wave tools to figure out what’s going on in the intensely hot, high pressure middle of a very mysterious class of stars known as neutron stars.

“You build an instrument for things you want to measure, and then you see things that you didn’t expect to see”

Neutron stars are more massive than the sun but packed down into an area the size of the city of Boston. These types of stars form when stars about four to eight times the size of our sun die.

The hearts of these stars might actually be so dense and high pressure, that they warp molecules into a totally different state of matter than what can be observed in labs on Earth.

“In this case, of course, it [the matter in a neutron star] exists in a state that we’re not familiar with from our own personal experience because we’ve never witnessed those kinds of pressures,” Berger said.

At the moment, LIGO isn’t able to easily detect neutron star mergers as they are somewhat less energetic than black hole collisions, but in the future it should be able to as its sensitivity advances, revealing the hearts of those dense objects.

Simulation of gravitational waves.


Gravitational wave science also has the ability to add to the already rich tapestry of science done by looking at light in the universe.

Some astronomers are already attempting to pinpoint the optical sources of gravitational waves to see if there’s any kind of light signal that goes along with mergers of black holes.

At the moment, LIGO isn’t very good at pinpointing exactly where a signal is coming from in the sky, so other technologies could be further developed to meet that challenge in the future, allowing scientists to gather precise data on the sources of gravitational waves, LIGO’s Mavalvala said.

And one day, LIGO and the host of new technology that will be produced around it may even hear a new signal that scientists can’t even imagine now.

“You build an instrument for things you want to measure, and then you see things that you didn’t expect to see,” Mavalvala said.

“I think that’s the true promise of these instruments.”

Watch black holes collide in VR

Take a VR journey through space and time in the latest episode of The Possible.Click here to download the Within app to watch The Possible.

BONUS: These scientists are proving Einstein wrong

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(CNN)CNN’s Fareed Zakaria had strong words on Sunday for President Donald Trump’s performance so far, imploring viewers to “not confuse motion with progress,” and arguing that Trump has “hardly done anything.”

“The first few weeks of the Trump administration have been an illustration of that line from the writer Alfred Montalpert: “Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress,'” Zakaria said.
“We are witnessing a rocking horse presidency,” he added.
    Though the host of CNN’s “GPS” acknowledged that since winning the election the President has “dominated the news,” he couldn’t, fathom what Trump had “actually done” over the past month.
    “This week, Trump said at a news conference, “There’s never been a presidency that’s done so much in such a short period of time,” Zakaria noted.
    But the reality of the Trump White House, he said, is that it “has not even begun serious discussions with Congress on major legislation.”
    Trump had issued a series of “executive orders with great fanfare,” Zakaria acknowledged.
    However, he argued, “they are mostly hot air, lofty proclamations that direct some agency to “review” a law, “report” back to him, “consider” some action or reaffirm some long-standing practice.”

    Not much happening on serious policy

    The one order that actually “did something,” the temporary travel ban, was unsuccessful, Zakaria said, and ” so poorly conceived and phrased that it got stuck in the court system and will have to be redone or abandoned.”
    As for many of Trump’s campaign promises, from the reindustrialization of the Midwest to reviving the coal and steel industries, to imposing term limits on all members of Congress?
    “All were promised, none has been done,” said Zakaria.
    There are “two aspects” to the Trump presidency, said the CNN host. The “freak show” and “the savvy businessman.”
    “For many people, the bargain of the Trump presidency was that they would put up with the freak show in order to get tax reform, infrastructure projects and deregulation,” he said.
    Though Zakaria acknowledged that Trump may still fulfill some of his campaign promises, for now, “not much is happening in the realm of serious policy.”
    “The Romans said the way to keep people happy was to give them “bread and circus” — sustenance and entertainment” said Zakaria.
    “So far all we have gotten is the circus.”

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    You dont have to have perfect vision to enjoy VR, but brother, it helps. Otherwise, youre looking at having to worry about accommodating glasses, eye tracking not working, ocular distances maxing out and so on. Stanford researchers want to make things easier for people with vision problems to use VR, but its not going to be easy.

    Vision is a complicated process, and a lot of things can go wrong but common afflictions like nearsightedness or an inability to focus on objects close up affect millions. Combined with how VR presents depth of field and other effects, this leads to a variety of optical problems and inconsistencies that can produce headaches, nausea and disorientation.

    VR headsets often allow for adjusting things like the distance from your eye to the screen, how far apart your eyes are and other factors. But for many, its not enough.


    An illustration from the paper shows how even with perfect vision a vergence-accommodation conflict can arise. With vision problems, this and other effects could be more common and more intense.

    Every person needs a different optical mode to get the best possible experience in VR, said Stanfords Gordon Wetzstein in a news release.

    His teams research, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a set of mechanisms that together comprise what they call an adaptive focus display.


    One prototype used a modified Samsung Gear VR.

    One approach uses a liquid lens, the shape of which can be adjusted on-the-fly to adjust for certain circumstances say, when the focus of the game is on an object that the viewer normally wouldnt be able to focus on. The screen itself could also be moved in order to better fit the optical requirements of someone with a given condition.

    The technology we propose is perfectly compatible with existing head mounted displays, wrote Wetzstein in an email to TechCrunch. However, one also needs eye tracking for this to work properly. Eye tracking is a technology that everyone in the industry is working on and we expect eye trackers to be part of the next wave of [head-mounted displays]. Thus, our gaze-contingent focus displays would be directly compatible with those.

    In the paper, both commercial and built-from-scratch headsets are used to prototype various methods of adjusting optical qualities of the displays. The team tested these with 173 participants at (among other places) last years SIGGRAPH conference; the news release reports an improved viewing experiences across a wide range of vision characteristics.

    This is still early-stage research: Simple vision correction is one thing, but more complex conditions like astigmatism require more complex solutions. (Theyre looking into it, but it will not be quite as straightforward.)

    Wetzstein confirmed to TechCrunch that the team is in contact with pretty much all VR headset makers.

    I cannot reveal any specific details about these collaborations, he wrote, but I can say that there is a huge amount of interest and technology developments in industry are closely aligned with our research.

    It seems likely, then, that we can expect headsets in the next generation not just to be better optically and ergonomically, but to be more inclusive and accommodating (so to speak) of those with vision problems.

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    The full moon during a penumbral lunar eclipse in 2013.
    Image: Hildenbrand/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

    This weekend is set to start off with a cosmic bang.

    On Friday night, the full moon will be eclipsed by the shadow of the Earth, and in the darkness of Saturday morning, just hours after the eclipse, a green-tinted comet will make its closest flyby of Earth.

    This skywatching coincidence should make for an interesting start to the weekend for people around the world who are able to see both the comet and the eclipse.

    First, an eclipse

    The shadow of the Earth should start encroaching on the face of the moon’s surface starting at around 5:30 p.m. ET and lasting for 4.5 hours as the moon dips deep into Earth’s outer shadow known as the penumbra and comes back out again.

    A diagram of how lunar eclipses work.

    Image: Sky & Telescope illustration

    If you have a view of the moon during that period of time, you should be able to see at least part of the penumbral eclipse.

    The Friday eclipse won’t be like a dramatic total lunar eclipse, which can turn the moon a deep shade of red, but a penumbral eclipse is still beautiful in its subtlety.

    “The outer part of Earths penumbra is so pale that you wont notice anything until the Moons edge has slid at least halfway in,” Alan MacRobert, a senior editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, said in a statement. “So start looking about 90 minutes before mid-eclipse.”

    The shadow should start encroaching on the moon’s left side, slowing moving inward and then slowing moving in reverse as the moon comes out of its dip into Earth’s shadow.

    A view of a penumbral eclipse in 2012.

    Image: Hong Kong Space Museum/Sky & Telescope

    “With time, the dusky shading will become more prominent, and as mid-eclipse approaches, the lopsidedness of the moons illumination will be totally obvious,” Sky & Telescope added in the statement.

    The northern bit of the moon’s face should look slightly darker than the rest of the lunar surface, the magazine added, because it will be the bit closest to the deep shadow of the Earth, known as the umbra.

    Then, a comet

    Once the eclipse ends, the next bit of our cosmic weekend can start in earnest.

    In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Comet 45P will make its closest approach with Earth, bringing it nearer to our planet than any other comet has been in about 30 years.

    The comet won’t be visible with the naked eye, but if you have a pair of binoculars or even better a backyard telescope they should at least give you some sense of what this icy wanderer looks like.

    During this close approach, Comet 45P will fly about 7.4 million miles from Earth.

    “It’ll be visible in the morning sky in the constellation Hercules,” NASA said in a skywatching video. “The comet then passes through the constellations Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Botes (the Herdsman), Canes Venatici (Botes’ hunting dogs) and Ursa Major. Then on to Leo by the end of February.”

    If you don’t catch the comet this time, don’t worry, you’ll have another chance to see it when it comes back around in 2022, according to NASA.

    If you aren’t in a part of the world that affords you the ability to see the comet and lunar eclipse or if it’s cloudy in your area then the skywatching organization Slooh has you covered.

    Slooh will air two live broadcasts to share live views of the comet and the lunar eclipse with expert commentary. The live eclipse broadcast will begin at 5:30 p.m. ET, with the comet show set for 10:30 p.m. ET on Slooh’s website.

    Read more:

    Der Spiegels polarizing cover art intended as response to seriously endangered principles of democracy and freedom of the press, editor-in-chief said

    The editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel said on Sunday a front cover illustration of Donald Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, which split opinion at home and abroad, was a response by the German magazine to threats against democracy.

    Published on Saturday, the cover depicts a cartoon figure of the US president with a bloodied knife in one hand and the statues head, dripping with blood, in the other. It carries the caption: America First.

    It followed a series of attacks on Berlins policies by Trump and his aides that have marked a rapid deterioration in German relations with the US.

    Der Spiegel does not want to provoke anybody, editor-in-chief Klaus Brinkbaeumer told Reuters after the cover set off a debate on Twitter and in German and international media, adding he was surprised by the impact of the illustration.

    We want to show what this is about, its about democracy, its about freedom, its about freedom of the press, freedom of justice and all that is seriously endangered, he said. So we are defending democracy Are these serious times? Yes they are.

    Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a member of Germanys Free Democrats (FDP) and vice-president of the European Parliament, described the cover as tasteless.

    Die Welt said it damages journalism while another German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said it was exactly what Trump needs a distorted image of him, which he can use to work more on his distorted image of the press.

    Karl-Georg Wellmann, a lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkels CDU conservatives, told mass-selling daily Bild: I urge everyone to calm down and to handle this with reason, rather than gut feeling.

    German chancellor Angela Merkel was the go-to European ally for President Obama, who praised her as an outstanding partner.

    Trump has said Merkel made a catastrophic mistake with her open-door migration policy, and his top trade adviser last week accused Germany of using a grossly undervalued euro to gain advantage over the US and its European partners.

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