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On February 11, 2016, a group of very excited scientists announced that after patiently searching for decades they had discovered gravitational waves.
Some called this the "breakthrough of the century." At the announcement, some even cried tears of joy ("It's Official! Gravitational waves have been detected, Einstein was right," ScienceAlert.com, February 11, 2016). But why all of the celebration? What are gravitational waves? And what can such a discovery tell us about the God behind them?
The story of this discovery goes back a hundred years to 1915, when 26-year-old Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. His theory was revolutionary, explaining that any mass in space—such as the sun or the earth—bends and distorts space and time around them. This bending of space and time—or "spacetime"—causes the effect we see as gravity.
To visualize the effect for yourself, try rolling a small marble across the smooth sheet of a neatly made bed. Normally, it would roll in a straight line. Next, imagine that a heavy bowling ball was sitting in the middle of the bed, causing the sheet to sink into the mattress. Now, if you roll the marble too near the location of the bowling ball, it will curve in toward the bowling ball.
Einstein's theory explained that this is how gravity works. An object like the earth bends spacetime around it, causing objects like the moon to "curve in" toward it. The sun, much larger than the earth, causes such a deep distortion that the planets of the solar system orbit in place instead of flying away.
General relativity is considered one of the best-proven scientific discoveries in human history, though one of its key predictions—gravitational waves—had never been proven true.
Einstein's theory predicted that certain colossal events in space—such as a collision between two black holes, the densest and most massive objects in the universe—would create gravitational waves. These waves would be distortions in the fabric of spacetime, where it is stretched and shrunk, and they would travel from the event outward throughout the universe like ripples spreading from a splash in a pond.
However, such waves would distort space in small amounts that would be impossible to detect—impossible, that is, until September 14, 2015, when scientists working on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment did, indeed, detect the existence of spacetime waves. LIGO's superbly sensitive instruments measured the stretching and shrinking of spacetime—one of the "ripples" of a massive cosmic event—as a gravitational wave passed through the earth. It did so even though the distortion in spacetime was mind-bogglingly small—just one-thousandth the diameter of a subatomic proton!
Just to be sure, the scientists spent the next five months checking and double-checking the results, and the evidence was clear and unmistakable. After a century of looking, gravitational waves had been discovered. Einstein's prediction was correct.
The violent cosmic event that caused these waves was summarized by Dr. Kip Thorne: "The colliding black holes that produced these gravitational waves created a violent storm in the fabric of space and time, a storm in which time speeded up and slowed down, and speeded up again, a storm in which the shape of space was bent in this way and that way" ("Gravitational waves: breakthrough discovery after a century of expectation," TheGuardian.com, February 11, 2016). Black holes are the densest objects in the universe, and the collision was estimated to have occurred 1.3 billion light years away.
What a strange and fantastic universe we inhabit, where even space and time can "ripple" like the surface of a lake! What powerful forces must be at play in this universe to cause such violent and space-altering events! And what insight they give us into the nature, power and goodness of the Great Creator of all things.
For instance, how was Albert Einstein, over the course of meditating and performing "thought experiments," able to deduce the existence of such waves in the first place—waves caused by objects billions and billions of miles away, which he had never seen nor ever would see in his lifetime?
He could do so because our universe is comprehensible—a lawful and orderly creation! God has "appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth" (Jeremiah 33:25), and the creation—from one end of heaven to the other—demonstrates that it has been designed by the Sovereign Lawgiver!
That a mere human being on planet Earth could contemplate the vast reaches of the cosmos, and could by meditation and computation uncover principles that would not be confirmed until 100 years later, is a tribute to God's magnificent and orderly design at the foundation of reality!
The discovery of these waves also highlights how powerful our Creator is. Consider that the test of the infamous "Tzar Bomba" thermonuclear device in October 1961 was the largest man-made explosion in history. Heat from the blast was felt more than 150 miles away ("Big Ivan, The Tsar Bomba ('King of Bombs')" NuclearWeaponArchive.org, September 3, 2007), and the explosion's mushroom cloud rose in the atmosphere almost two-thirds the distance to outer space.
Yet even the terrible power of Tzar Bomba is less than a mere infant's toy compared to the event the LIGO scientists measured. Scientists estimate that at the moment these black holes collided, the gravitational waves they emitted contained the equivalent of "taking three suns and annihilating them" (McDonald).
When we consider such majestic power, we may be reminded of the words of the patriarch Job: "Indeed these are the mere edges of His ways, and how small a whisper we hear of Him! But the thunder of His power who can understand?" (Job 26:14).
In a universe where cosmos-shaking black hole collisions are merely whispers of His power, how much more powerful must be the One who upholds that universe by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3)?
Such discoveries should give us pause and cause us to wonder with grateful hearts at the mind-boggling inheritance our heavenly Father holds in store for us. No, God did not create this universe around us as some sort of grand "show" for us merely to look at and wonder about, forever at a distance. The universe revealed for us by scientists such as these LIGO astrophysicists is, in fact, your future and your destiny!
Jesus tells us that "He who overcomes shall inherit all things" (Revelation 21:7)—and "all things" means "all things"! The Apostle Paul noted that this inheritance extends far beyond what we can see now with our eyes and includes the entirety of God's created realm—vast beyond belief (Hebrews 2:8)!
As scientists probe deeper and farther into the universe, they continue to uncover the power of God, the greatness of His plan for us and the incomparable magnitude of His gift to those who choose to become His children!