ANU Professor Susan Scott at the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves at Parliament House. Photo by Stuart Hay.

ANU Professor Susan Scott at the announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves at Parliament House. Photo by Stuart Hay.

Wave of the century

The discovery of gravitational waves is the culmination of a search by a generation of ANU physicists, reports DR PHIL DOOLEY, BSc (Hons) '90, PhD '99.

An excited hush fell over the briefing room at Parliament House as Professor David McClelland stepped up to the microphone.

"I'm pretty sure you all know by now but I want to say it. We've done it," he said as his voice quavered.

Spontaneous applause broke out, as McClelland allowed himself a smile. Camera flashes popped and TV cameras zoomed in.

"We detected a wave that was generated 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes crashed into each another... the most violent event ever witnessed."

The announcement was sweet reward for McClelland, an ANU laser physicist who has spent his career working towards this moment.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves but thought they were too small for humans to ever detect.

To prove Einstein wrong and right in a single stroke is rare treat for a scientist.

"This is a moment that will be remembered for a thousand years," McClelland said.

Gravitational waves are vibrations of space and time themselves, one of the most outlandish predictions of Einstein's 1916 General Theory of Relativity. Yet, they appeared exactly as predicted and join the long list of successes of Einstein's theory over the last century.

The first success of Relativity came three years after Einstein's publication, when a solar eclipse allowed astronomers to pick out the tiny deflection of distant starlight by the sun's gravity.