Science Questions

What would happen if I flew through a gravitational wave?

Tue, 9th Aug 2016

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Question

Dylan Vassallo asked:

Hi, Im a huge fan of your show. I have a question. If two blackholes collide and there is a ripple of time in space, what would happen if you flew through it? And what other situations can change time itself?

Answer

We put this to astronomer Matt Middleton from the University of Cambridge...Black Holes and Gravitational Waves

Chris - Now this happens on Star Trek a lot, so Iím really interested to hear the answer to this.

Matt - What?

Chris - People flying through aÖ

Matt - ...gravitational wave?

Chris - Well, an anomaly in the space-time continuum?

Matt - OK.

Chris - It happens a lot and Jean-Luc Picardís hand went all funny in a fruit dish once and I always wondered how one would argue that from a physics point of view.

Kat -   I think weíve identified the Trekkies in the room!

Mat - Singular, singular! OK, so obviously a very pertinent question given that LIGO has directly detected gravitational waves...

Chris - LIGO?

Matt - LIGO is the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, and they detected gravitational waves for the first time, and these are formed when black holes merge. They can be formed in other ways too but thatís whatís been discovered from LIGO. So these waves, they propagate outwards and theyíre crashing through us all the time. Right now, gravitational waves are going through us. We donít feel them because the...

Chris - I donít know, I went to the curry house last night and Iíve had gravitational waves afterwards!

Matt - Oh thatís beautiful - what a lovely image! The strength of gravitational waves falls away inversely with distance and, because these things are astrophysical in origin, the gravitational that cross us are infact very very weak. And in fact, LIGO had to detect the Sun  moving by the width of human hair. Thatís how accurately they had to do their measurements. Thatís absolutely phenomenal!

What essentially happened though is that if you add two particles together and a gravitational wave goes through them, theyíd be pulled apart and compressed at the frequency of that wave. It would be like a tidal force when the moon goes round the earth, so pulls and pushes, stuff like that. So in terms of time though, the effect is extremely minimal.

Chris - But does it actually do anything different to your body? Does that mean, literally, parts of your body are experiencing time slightly differently as the wave goes through you?

Matt - Time... probably not. The time dilation effects are going to be extremely minimal but in a physical way you would feel a tug. It would be like a tidal force so as if you wereÖ

Chris - But a very small one?

Matt - Very, very small for us. If you got very close to the black hole, then there would be a huge tidal force but then your days about to get much, much worse!

I donít know if that was on Star Trek? And then you are in a seriously different realm of time dilation effects.

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