These Numbers Tell the Story of Einstein's Gravitational Waves

LIGO is celebrating apparent confirmation of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, specifically that space and time are really one unit that exist as part of a gravitational grid.

Scientists everywhere are celebrating the apparent confirmation of one aspect of Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, specifically that space and time are really one unit — space-time — that exist as part of a gravitational grid. When that grid is disturbed by massive events in space, the space-time continuum itself is altered.


THE EVENT

4 a.m. on September 14, 2015, a loud signal came through scientific detection equipment in Livingston, Louisiana.

Seven milliseconds later, the signal was picked up at a similar observatory in Hanford, Washington.

A team of more than 1,000 scientists, collectively called LIGO, had struck physics gold.

Believed to be evidence of gravitational waves, the signal could confirm a final portion of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity.

THE PLACE

The Livingston signal was recorded by two antennas each measuring 2.5 miles long and joined at the bend of a large L-shape.

The antennas are held inside a concrete vacuum filled with 2.5 million gallons of empty space.

When Einstein announced his theory in 1915, he instantly overturned more than 200 years of stable Newtonian physics. 

The facility where the antennas are located was built by the National Science Foundation for $1.1 billion over more than 40 years.

Scientific instruments converted the signal, coming in from outer space, to a sound that starts at a low frequency and builds to middle C.

THE SOURCE

More than 1 billion years ago, two black holes collided with one another.

One of them was 36 times as massive as the sun; the other, 29.

Drawn inescapably toward each other — a result of gravity — their velocity sped to nearly the speed of light.

At 250 times per second, they circled each other before coalescing into a single black hole, an event that took one-fifth of a second (Earth time).

When they collided, the black holes released 50 times the amount of energy released by all the stars in the known universe at that same moment. 

This energy vibrated the Livingston instruments just four one-thousandths of a diameter of a proton.

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Image credit: The machines that gave scientists their first-ever glimpse at gravitational waves are the most advanced detectors ever built for sensing tiny vibrations in the universe.The two US-based underground detectors are known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO for short. / AFP / SAUL LOEB /Getty Images

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The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

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"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.