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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: What is LIGO?

Installation of advanced LIGO upgrades

In 1916, Einstein made a bold prediction-- that gravity actually travels in waves. These “gravitational waves” would be ripples in the fabric of space a bit like ripples on a pond, and would slightly stretch and squash the distances between things as they passed. 

"Einstein himself who came up with the theory didn't think that would ever really be detected," says Leslie Wade, assistant professor of Physics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Anything with mass can make gravitational waves by moving around, but they’re so small, the only waves we could possibly see are from the most energetic events in the universe, like two black holes smashing into each other. To look for these, scientists like Leslie and Madeline Wade, assistant professors of physics at Kenyon College joined thousands of others to build LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.  

Madeline and Leslie Wade have worked at Kenyon College since 2015.

"We’re essentially measuring how much the two perpendicular arms of the interferometer have moved relative to each other by measuring how much light that is being sent down these arms is constructively or destructively interfering," Madeline said. 

"You can go back to figure out okay if I got this much light at my detector that meant each arm had to move by a certain amount."

It took four decades to build and tune LIGO’s 4-kilometer-long interferometers, but finally, 100 years after Einstein’s prediction, they made their first gravitational wave detection in 2015.

LIGO Laboratory operates two detector sites, one near Hanford in eastern Washington, and another near Livingston, Louisiana. This photo shows the Livingston detector site.

Exploradio Origins is a weekly feature produced in conjunction with the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University. Tune in to 89.7 WKSU every Thursday afternoon during All Things Considered to listen to Exploradio Origins. You can find each segment posted online after it airs. Explore all the segments here.

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.