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Gravitational Waves are Made Simple in This Easy-To-Understand Demonstration

Humans are visual creatures, and the majority of us are also visual learners. So when it comes to gaining a basic understanding of mathematically complicated astronomical phenomena like gravitational waves, a handy visual aid is preferable over years and years of studying general relativity. That’s where Steve Mould and his super simple visual demonstration of gravitational waves comes in.

The video seen above—which is slightly more involved than his previous video about a peculiar liquid you can pour uphill—starts with the classic visual example that explains gravity, its curvature of spacetime, and how that affects bodies in space. Basically, first imagine a tarp pulled tight across a frame, or even a sheet stretched tautly across a mattress, then picture an object (like a bowling ball) placed in the center of it. The bowl-shaped depression that forms in the tarp or sheet is a great representation of how a massive object in space warps the spacetime around it. (It gets a little tougher to visualize the effect in three dimensions this way, so just picture the warped spacetime like two halves of an avocado around its pit.)

Mould’s gravitational waves demo takes this handy visual aid to the next level. Since any orbiting pair of objects can theoretically produce gravitational waves — though in practice we can only currently observe massive binary objects like white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes — Mould added a stand-in for an orbiting pair of black holes to his basic spacetime tarp. Then, bringing their cyclical orbit up to his system’s approximation for the speed of light (with the help of a power drill) Mould was able to record the resulting gravitational waves that coursed out across the known universe tarp. A very neat solution to an otherwise complicated phenomenon!

The idea of gravitational waves has been discussed as far back as 1893, but mathematically predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, and only recently observed in February and June of this year, providing observable evidence in support of Einstein’s last theory. If you’re more of an auditory learner or would just like to know more about gravitational waves, Mould also has a casual discussion video here.

Did this demonstration help to clarify how gravitational waves work? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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Image: Steve Mould

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