A few months ago, gravitational waves from a black hole collision were measured by scientists, a discovery many have predicted to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2016. One Utah author wrote about this discovery in his science fiction novel—five years before it happened.
“In my first book, The Truth Beyond the Sky, there’s a device called the gravity lens. In the book, it’s a top-secret project that almost nobody knows about. It’s on the verge of a defense project. I don’t want to spoil anything for people who haven’t read it. They’re really far from home, tens of thousands of light-years from home, and some new information is revealed. The gravity lens is really important…to let them know that they need to get home as soon as possible.”
Andrew Crusoe is a young adult science fiction novelist living in Logan, Utah. In his first book, there is a device called the gravity lens, which uses gravitational waves to map planets, and is a major plot point. This February, physicists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, announced that they had in fact detected gravitational waves in the real world for the first time, a phenomenon that Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago.
“So this gravity lens, I hypothesized. I was writing this in 2011, and I was not aware of the research that was going on. I was rather familiar with Einstein’s work in special and general relativity, and I thought that if space and time are a fabric and they’re really part of the same thing, then there’s got to be a way to measure gravity and gravity waves. I always thought that there would be some detector that would respond to a gravity wave. But, I didn’t picture it as a big ‘L’.”
At LIGO, the precise lengths of a pair of L-shaped hallways, one in Louisiana and the other in Washington state, is measured using a system of mirrors and lasers. These lasers detected a tiny, synchronous change in the length of two instruments, lasting one quarter of a second, which was caused by the gravitational waves emitted from the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away.
I asked Crusoe how he felt when he heard that the device in his books was now more-or-less a reality.
“Actually I saw it on Twitter first, because everyone sees everything on Twitter first, and I’m looking at these articles and I’m like, I should have thought of that. I did it to make the plot pop more, and it ended up being something that actually happened, which is kind of strange, never happened to me before, and I’m glad that they can do that now.”
Utah State University Physicist Maria Rodriguez described how measuring these waves can now allow us to do, in real-life, exactly what Crusoe proposed in his book—map the universe using gravity.
“It’s the first time that humankind could measure the merging of two black holes. This is the coolest experiment ever at many levels, not just the confirmation of gravitational waves. It opens up very exciting new ways of observing the universe.”
The LIGO experiment was first conceived in part by Logan native Kip Thorne, son of renowned Utah State University faculty members D. Wynne and Alison Thorne, and several other Utah physicists have since contributed to the seventeen-year effort. This year’s discovery may rekindle interest in NASA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, a satellite for measuring gravitational waves from orbit, which was put on hold in 2011, the same year in which Crusoe predicted the utility of just such a device in his fictional novels.