Ask Ethan: If Light Contracts And Expands With…

Ask Ethan: If Light Contracts And Expands With Space, How Do We Detect Gravitational Waves?

“If the wavelength of light stretches and contracts with space-time, then how can LIGO detect gravitational waves. [Those waves] stretch and contract the two arms of the LIGO detector and so the the light waves within the the two arms [must] stretch and contract too. Wouldn’t the number of wavelengths of light in each arm remain the same hence cause no change in the interference pattern, rendering [gravitational waves] undetectable?”

Three years ago, we detected the very first gravitational wave ever seen, as the signal from two massive, merging black holes rippled through the Universe, carrying with it the energy of three solar masses turned into pure energy via Einstein’s E = mc^2. Since that time, we’ve discovered more gravitational waves, mostly from black hole-black hole mergers but also from a neutron star-neutron star merger.

But how did we do it? The LIGO detectors function by having two perpendicular laser beams bounce back-and-forth in a long vacuum chamber, only to recombine them at the end. As the gravitational waves pass through, the arm lengths extend and compress, changing the path length. But the wavelength of the light inside changes, too! Doesn’t this mean the effects should cancel out, and we shouldn’t see an interference pattern?

It’s what you might intuit, but it’s not right. The scientific truth is fascinating, and allows us to detect these waves anyway. Here’s how it all works!