Gravity Waves, Python*, Intel and the Billion-Year Bong

By David C Stewart, Published: 02/26/2016, Last Updated: 02/26/2016

Gravitational Waves

Like many who earned their degree in the sciences, I was required to take a year of physics in university. Vectors, forces, all that stuff. We learned space is not some empty homogeneous volume, but it actually bends and warps around massive objects like stars. The way to think about it is like the rubber surface of a trampoline weighed down by a heavy object like a rock or an anchor. It bends the surface of space around it.

This was proven by astronomical observations, which would show light itself being bent around a star. 

On the trampoline surface, if you crash two objects together, like a rock and an anchor, the rubber will vibrate and then settle down, right?

Instead of a trampoline, how about two massive black holes crashing together! The resulting gravity waves should be detectable, right?

It only took 100 years, but the detector has been built and has verifiably observed a gravity wave.

It took so long because the precision of the instrument required to detect such waves has been impossible up to now. The Laser Interferometer Gravity-wave Observatory or LIGO detected a gravity wave generated more than a billion years ago and could verify it’s age and general direction.

The event which caused the wave was the collision of two massive black holes, each around 30 times more massive than the sun.

The detector uses a laser shot through kilometers of tunnels, bouncing off of mirrors isolated from any terrestrial vibration and interferometers able to sense a wiggle smaller than the width of a proton. As if that weren’t hard enough, duplicate the whole thing in another location so that any wave detected by one observatory could be verified by the other.

This is the stuff of geek dreams, but wait, it gets better!

The waves turn out to be in the same frequency range as human hearing. So it’s even possible to “play” the wave, convert it to a sound, and actually hear this event from over a billion years ago. When it was played, the little bong sound meant humans can now listen to cataclysmic events around the universe.

How could this get any better? Well, how about adding Python and Intel into the mix!

It turns out that Python is used extensively throughout LIGO:

How does Intel fit into this?  We’re doing a lot to speed up Python on our chips, but what else? What kind of computers are they using, for example?

Like a lot of work on open source software in the world, it’s not always possible to know how your code is being used. From what we can tell, there are a lot of one and two-socket Intel servers being used to do this processing.

In the near future, we should be seeing more gravity-wave detectors coming online around the world to improve our triangulation of these events. There are also plans for an even more sensitive detector array in space at the Lagrange points. Very exciting!

Besides in astrophysics, Python and Intel servers are being used in high-energy physics projects, bioscience projects and all manner of advances of human knowledge. I’m excited to be involved with a greater understanding of the universe, even if it’s just a very small part.

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