Gravitational Waves Give Insight on Colliding Neutron Stars

FULLERTON (CNS) - Two months ago, Cal State Fullerton astrophysicist Jocelyn Read was preparing to speak at a conference when some of her colleagues tipped her off that a scientific breakthrough she had been working on for more than a decade had finally come through.

The breakthrough was so enormous it made some of her prepared remarks irrelevant, but she couldn't say anything, she told City News Service today.

``I was at a conference preparing for a session I was supposed to chair later that day,'' Read said. ``It was on what we could learn from neutron star matter on gravitational waves.''

On that day, Aug. 17, at 5:41 a.m. our time, detectors in the United States and Italy picked up signals from the collision of two neutron stars 130 million light years away. Read was instrumental in the discovery of gravitational waves two years earlier that confirmed Einstein's Theory of Relativity, but this latest breakthrough allowed scientists to not just ``hear'' the waves, but ``see'' them.

The proof of gravitational waves came from two black holes colliding, but since no light escapes from a black hole there would be no way to see it, but the detectors could measure the sound. The neutron stars, when they collided, emitted a burst of gamma rays, which could be seen by the detectors.

Scientists were not allowed to talk about the breakthrough until they checked all of their data to confirm the discovery, Read said. On Monday, the first results of that research were published in Physical Review Letters in an article Read helped write.

``Some of my colleagues elbowed me and made a joke about not revealing the new discovery,'' Read said. ``It was only then I looked at my email and saw we made these first measurements. It was all secret so I had to keep my poker face during the speech.''

In many parts of her speech, she referred to ``hypothetical'' sightings of gravitational waves, she said.

``I was sort of second-guessing every sentence out of my mouth,'' she said.

Upon learning of the sighting, Read said she felt ``amazement and delight that such a beautiful signal had been found. And then, immediately, it was jumping to work to try to see if we could learn from it.''

One of the more remarkable conclusions from the breakthrough is that light and gravitational waves travel at the same speed, Read said.

Einstein predicted as much in his Theory of Relativity, so the latest breakthrough is another in the checklists of proofs of the scientific genius' musings, Read said.

Also, scientists learned more about how heavy metals such as gold are made from these neutron star collisions. The matter that forms the metals is flung off from the collision, and that matter settles into what ends up becoming a planet.

``As the dense neutron matter is flung out and as it settles down to everyday matter, which is lower density, it produces the heavier elements,'' Read said.

It's difficult to say how the discovery will affect the practical lives of regular people, Read said.

``Some of the scientific impact will affect people 100 years from now in ways that we can't even imagine,'' Read said.

For instance, she added, today global-positioning satellites help people find the nearest coffee house, but that technology was spawned by Einstein's relativity theory in 1915.

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