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Interactive video lesson plan for: Gravitational Waves: The Universe's Subtle Soundtrack, with Janna Levin

Activity overview:

Albert Einstein was the first to discuss the fabric of space, and according to his theorems, the curvature of it. We have been discussing the possibility of gravitational waves ever since.

Levin's latest book is "Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space" (


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Transcript - Gravitational waves are such a difficult concept. When Einstein first wrote down his theory of curved space time he said the most important question that he needed to look at next was the question of whether or not there were waves in the shape of space-time. If space-time can curve, so let's say you imagine around the earth or around a black hole there are these deep curves and those are the paths that you naturally fall along if you're falling around a black hole or the earth or the sun or anything else. That traces out the shape of space-time. But if I take it that black hole and I start to move it around those curves in the shape of space have to follow the moving black hole. They have to somehow readjust, straighten out in some places and curve in other places. And those are the gravitational waves. And they actually move like a wave in space and time. If you were floating nearby you would kind of bob on the wave. You would be slightly squeezed and stretched as it passed. And in Einstein's approach to gravity we think that the gravitational waves travel at the speed of light so they emanate out through the universe kind of as though fish were swirling in a pond and of the pond started to create waterways and those would emanate out through the ocean.

When black holes collide they're like mallets on a drum and space time itself rings. And if we could hear that sound, which you might be able to actually technically if you were an astronaut floating near enough to colliding black holes, you might actually have your eardrum resonate in response and hear something. And it would sound, the word that we use is a chirp, it sounds like a chirp. And what that really means is the ringing of space sweeps up in frequency as the black holes get faster and faster and finally merge. So they're going to near the speed of light by the time it's loud enough to be heard.

A gravitational wave is much closer to a sound than just some kind of scientific analogy. You can take a lot of different wave forms and translate them into sound, it doesn't really mean that they're actually sounds. But a gravitational wave you could liken it to how an electric guitar, when you pluck of the string of an electric guitar it doesn't technically make a sound. It vibrates and the body of the guitar translates that vibration into a sound. In some sense LIGO, the instrument that measured the gravitational wave, it's doing something like that. The gravitational wave is a ringing of space time, a vibration of space time and the machine records the vibration and plays it back as sound. You can actually sit in the control room at the two sites of the LIGO observatories and listen to the detector. Read Full Transcript Here:

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