Question corner: What are gravitational waves?

Updated - November 17, 2021 04:35 am IST

Published - December 20, 2015 05:00 pm IST


What are gravitational waves?


While Sir Isaac Newton visualised gravitational force as a pulling force between objects, Albert Einstein opined it to be a pushing force due to the curvature of four dimensional spacetime fabric. The curvature of spacetime stems from the dent heavy objects produce on spacetime fabric which can be compared to the dent one could see on a plastic sheet when a massive ball is placed.

Mass in motion is the source of ripples of curved spacetime that propagate away at the speed of light. These propagating ripples in spacetime curvature are called gravitational waves that arise as a natural consequence to hold the general theory of relativity proposed by Einstein.

It is well known that accelerated electric charges produce electromagnetic waves. In a similar way, an accelerated mass produces gravitational waves. Although it is a classical effect, the strength of this effect is very small. For instance, the gravitational waves emitted by a vibrating electric charge are about a trillion trillion trillion times weaker than the electromagnetic waves emitted by the same electric charge.

Although, physics supports the existence of gravitational waves, the strength of such waves even due to astronomically heavy bodies is awfully weak to be detected. In spite of technological difficulties in directly detecting the existence of the gravitational waves, attempts have been on over the years as detecting them could help unravel the secrets of nature, including the birth of our universe itself.

Dr. P. RAMESH BABU, Professor of Physics

VIT University, Vellore, Tamil Nadu


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