I’ve been trying to think of a way to put this in context. It’s a big deal.
If you’re not familiar with physics, don’t worry I’ll try to break this down simply: Big objects distort space and time. The bigger the object, the more the distortion. Black holes are big objects (well, not in area, in fact they’re infinitely small, but really massive, and it’s the massive bit that counts).
So what happens when you smash two unimaginably huge (massive) objects together? Simple – you get ripples in space and time that propagate like ripples from a stone being thrown into a pond.
Now, how do you detect those ripples? Not to get too complicated, you use lasers, mirrors, pendulums, and really accurate clocks. It’s far more complicated than that of course, but that’s the gist.
Today scientists revealed that using these tools that they were able to detect two black holes over a billion light years away smashing into each other. The impact took less than a second, but it distorted time and space so much that we were able to measure the ripples all the way over here on Earth.
This is a big deal. This kind of detection can be used to measure other events in the universe as well, once the technique is worked out. It can further define the universe in ways we never guessed.
It’s a brand new kind of astronomy, and we’re here to witness it.
Read more about it here, with some nice videos and illustrations.
UPDATE – Read even more about it here, at Phil Plait’s wonderful Bad Astronomy blog.