Surf’s Up!

In his 2011 “Disturbing the Universe” blog posting, Dave Goldberg, Drexel physicist and co-author of A User’s Guide to the Universe, asked whether we could surf a gravitational wave. I re-ask this question now due to the very recent discovery (by LIGO) of gravitational waves from merging black holes. The answer is a qualified yes, since that’s more or less what the detectors in LIGO are doing (i.e., moving back and forth away from each other due to a wave passing through), but don’t go running for your board  yet because the results, though stunning as a confirmation of relativity and in showing how powerful merging black holes can be, may not seem quite so impressive when seeing how much such a wave might move your or me. That is, even though this remarkable detector got in the way of the gravitational signal from colliding black holes that released more energy than all known galaxies put together, it only amounted to a ripple at Earth that caused the detectors to separate from each other by about 1 thousandth the distance across the nucleus of a hydrogen atom.  Keep in mind that this discovery comes after improving the sensitivity of the LIGO detectors over the last few years, and LIGO is not yet done with improvements, so I think we can expect more.

Star Trek: The Next Generation provides (what I think is probably meant to be) an example of a large object (the Enterprise) “surfing” on a gravitational wave caused by warp drive experiments. Though this may seem implausible given what I stated as the length-scales for Earth born gravity detection, remember that the Enterprise is supposed to be relatively close to these gravity experiments, maybe a billion times closer or more than we are to these merging black holes. This would lead to a much stronger “signal” than what LIGO feels, perhaps enough to push a macroscopic object a significant distance. Of course, if you are that close to such a violent and energetic event you might have bigger problems than worrying whether the gravitational waves can push you anywhere.

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