Gravitational waves and why their discovery is such a big deal

Scientists working at the LIGO experiment in the US have for the first time detected elusive ripples in the fabric of space and time known as gravitational waves. There is no doubt that the finding is one of the most groundbreaking physics discoveries of the past 100 years. But what are they?

To best understand the phenomenon, let’s go back in time a few hundred years. In 1687 when Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, he thought of the gravitational force as an attractive force between two masses – be it the Earth and the Moon or two peas on a table top. However the nature of how this force was transmitted was less well understood at the time. Indeed the law of gravitation itself was not tested until British scientist Henry Cavendish did so in 1798, while measuring the density of the Earth.

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