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Scientists announced to the world earlier this year that they had discovered gravitational waves.1 This remarkable, Nobel Prize-worthy achievement is laden with significant cosmological implications, including what or who is responsible for the universe's existence.
The instrument used for the discovery is itself noteworthy. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is the world's most sensitive detector and can detect a distortion in space-time of 0.001, the diameter of a single atomic nucleus, across a 4-kilometer laser baseline. The LIGO team affirmed what many physicists consider the most significant prediction of Einstein's theory of general relativity, namely, that gravitational disturbances would emanate waves.
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Space & Time Are Created Entities
The discovery of gravitational waves also makes general relativity by far the most exhaustively tested and best-proven principle in the discipline of physics. Since general relativity is the foundation for the space-time theorems, proof of general relativity implies that the conclusion arising from the theorems—namely, that space and time are created entities that came into existence at the cosmic creation event—is correct.
One of the authors of the latest and most potent of the space-time theorems,2 Alexander Vilenkin, wrote, "With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning."3 What is that problem? Space-time theorems imply that a Causal Agent must be present, and that this agent brought our universe of matter, energy, space, and time into existence. Moreover, this Causal Agent matches the description and claimed mode of creation of the God of the Bible.
The Universe Experienced Hyperinflation
There is more. The discovery of gravitational waves adds to the weight of evidence that the universe experienced a hyperinflation event a little less than a billionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic creation event.4 This inflation event must have been extraordinarily fine-tuned in order to yield a universe in which, at some future point, it would be possible for advanced life to exist. This fine-tuning evidence, when combined with all the other known pieces of evidence for cosmic fine-tuning, implies that the Causal Agent who brought the universe into existence must be a personal Being.
Here follow two sections on black holes that may be on the technical side, but that are worth studying because their implications for understanding the universe are sizeable. It helps to know the big picture even if the details seem overwhelming.
1. Implications of the Discovery of Medium-Sized Black Holes
The disturbance that produced the gravitational waves that the LIGO instrument detected was the collision and subsequent merger of two black holes weighing in at 36 and 29 times the Sun's mass, respectively.
Astronomers had previously detected black holes whose mass was less than ten times the Sun's mass, and black holes whose mass was thousands, millions, and even billions of times greater than the Sun's mass. But until the gravity wave discovery was announced, astronomers had not been aware of any black holes with mass between 15 and 1,000 times the Sun's mass. Many theories of the evolution of the universe had predicted that black holes within this mass range could not exist.
The black holes that have thousands, millions, or billions of times the Sun's mass exist in the nuclei of galaxies and in globular clusters where the density of the stars is so extreme that literally thousands, millions, or billions of stars merge together. The black holes of less than 15 times the Sun's mass (medium-sized) are the aftermath of the nuclear burning of the very largest stars. Stars that are salted with tiny amounts of elements heavier than helium lose so much mass during their nuclear burning that little is left over to form a black hole. For example, a 40-solar-mass star, by the time it is done with nuclear burning and begins to collapse into a black hole, will have shed so much mass that it weighs just 10 solar masses. In the presence of elements heavier than helium, the largest star that can form is about 60 solar masses. This stellar mass limit explains the 15-solar-mass upper limit for the small black holes that astronomers had previously detected.
One way to get black holes of about 30 solar masses would be to have the stars responsible for such black holes form so early in cosmic history that the universe only contains the elements hydrogen and helium. This explanation would require that the two black holes detected by LIGO formed when the universe was less than a billion years old.
But this formation date raises a problem. The two black holes are located about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth. If these black holes indeed are the aftermath of the universe's first-born stars, then they somehow survived as a binary (pair) for about 12 billion years. Such longevity, though not impossible, is highly improbable.
Another possibility is for the two black holes to have formed in a galaxy that has an extremely low amount of elements heavier than helium. For example, astronomers have found a few dwarf spheroidal galaxies that possess a concentration of elements heavier than helium that measures a thousand times less than the concentration in the Milky Way Galaxy. Some star formation models predict that large enough stars could form in such an environment so as to leave behind a remnant black hole weighing as much as 30 solar masses.
The challenge here is that these dwarf galaxies are not only tiny, but they also manifest a very low star formation rate. Consequently, the probability that they would form stars that would leave behind a substantial number of 30-solar-mass black holes appears very small.
The answers to the puzzles posed by the discovery of 30-solar-mass black holes located 1.3 billion light-years away will require that more black hole merger events be discovered by LIGO and that several other gravity wave telescopes soon become fully operational. Once astronomers possess some clues as to the frequency of these kinds of black hole merger events and where they are located, they will be able to use that data to build a much more detailed understanding of the universe's first-born stars and of the subsequent star formation history of the universe.5 That knowledge stands to fill in more elements of the Creator's palette.
But there's more.
2. Implications of the Discovery of a Supermassive Black Hole Binary
In the May 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal, a team of ten Chinese astronomers announced the first-ever discovery of a supermassive black hole binary.6 They found the binary in the galaxy NGC 5548 (see figure), a galaxy in which more than 70 percent of its light comes from its nuclear core. Previous research teams had determined that a supermassive black hole, with a mass equal to 280 million times the Sun's mass, resided in the nuclear core.7
The Chinese team found a 14-year periodicity in the profile of the hydrogen beta spectral line and in the brightness of both the hydrogen beta emission spectral line and in the optical continuum arising from the nuclear core. These periodicities imply that the "supermassive black hole" is really two black holes of equal mass that orbit one another, with a separation equal to 21.7 light-days or 350 billion miles. The separation roughly equals a hundred times the distance between Neptune and the Sun.
Further confirmation for a supermassive black hole binary residing in the galactic center of NGC 5548 comes from a very deep-exposure image of that galaxy. This image shows two long tidal tails, which indicate that NGC 5548 is the aftermath of two roughly equal-mass galaxies that merged about one billion years ago. Each of the two galaxies that merged to become NGC 5548 would have contained a supermassive black hole at its galactic center. A billion years is a reasonable time for the orbit of the two supermassive black holes around each another to decay down to a distance of about 22 light-days.
NGC 5548 is 244 million light-years away, meaning that it is a little more than five times closer to Earth than the binary black hole merger event discovered by LIGO. NGC 5548's proximity to Earth and the very high mass of its black hole binary make it an excellent target for detecting gravitational waves. It may soon be joined in this respect by the galaxy NGC 4151. The latter displays a luminosity variation with a periodicity of about 15 years, and it is only 46 million light-years away.
Eventually, the two supermassive black holes in NGC 5548's center will merge. That merger will impact the LIGO instrument with gravitational waves billions of times stronger than what was detected by the merger of the two 30-solar-mass black holes. However, it will probably be at least another million years before the merger of NGC 5548's supermassive black holes occurs. Nevertheless, those black holes are already close enough together to radiate detectable gravitational waves.
With access to gravitational waves emanating from both medium-sized and supermassive black hole binaries, astronomers will be able to explore new properties of gravity and general relativity. They will be able to determine in much more detail the formation histories of both stars and galaxies in the universe. These advances will lead to a more precise understanding of the cosmic creation event and the subsequent development of the universe.
Inevitably, worldviews will come into play, but scientific testing can and should overcome preconceived ideas. How did our universe come to exist? Was it by chance? For a fair-minded person, the understanding to be gained by these advances promises to remove any remaining doubts about the validity of the biblically predicted8 big bang creation model. •
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