An astrophysicist explains Einstein's gravitational waves with a fart analogy

Louis Dor
Saturday 13 February 2016 12:00
Science and Tech

On Thursday, scientists announced that they had observed the warping of space-time generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away from Earth.

The experiment, conducted by an international team of researchers, sensed ripples in the fabric of time and space by noting signals which interfere with lasers, fired through long tunnels.

The merger of two black holes was picked up almost simulataneously by two separate Ligo facilities, confirming the existence of gravitational waves - a tenet of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

The signals detected disturbed the machines only by fractions of the width of an atom.

The experiment has been hailed as of groundbreaking importance and has been touted as nobel prize-worthy.

Professor David Reitze, executive director of the Ligo project, told journalists at a news conference in Washington DC:

We have detected gravitational waves.

It's the first time the Universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we've been deaf.

And now, Daisuke Wakabayashi, a tech reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has tweeted the most approachable analogy for the experiment, as described to a friend:

Matt, let's put this in terms you could understand: farts.

Any fart you inhale is from the past, so in some sense you are looking back in time when you breathe in a fart. It has been travelling at the speed of farts since it was emitted, until it reached your face.

Minor diversion and fun fact: farts move at roughly 3.05 metres or 10 feet per second.

For these gravitational waves, they have been travelling at the speed of light for 1.3bn years, spreading like ripples on a pond, until they broke on our shore.

Also the sensitivity of this experiment is such that it could have detected the first fart from the first multicellular organism on this planet, which has been travelling on the winds ever since, bifuricating and dividing until it is but the faintest wisp on a sommeliers tongue.

And to complete the analogy and answer "why is this important", imagine we could now study dinosaurs, living and breathing dinosaurs, through the distant taste of their farts. This is truly ground breaking.

We're not sure how Einstein would feel about this analogy.

Picture: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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