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U of M astronomer among those riding the wave of scientific breakthrough

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Gravitational waves have washed up on the shores of the earth's atmosphere.

And this time scientists had technology sensitive enough to detect them, creating what one scholar calls "the most important breakthrough in modern science."

A University of Minnesota professor of physics and astronomy, Vuc Mandic, was part of the team of 1,000 scientists in 15 countries whose work led to Wednesday's announcement that ripples in the fabric of space and time caused by the collision of two black holes in a distant universe had been measured here on Earth.

Scientists say the detection of gravitational waves confirms a major prediction in the theory of relativity that Einstein put forth a century ago and opens a new window onto the cosmos.

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What did they find?

The collision of those two black holes that happened so long ago and far away created shock waves, as the Wall Street Journal puts it, that rippled through the fabric of space and time across a billion light years.

The U of M says scientists estimate the gravitational waves measured by two detectors (in Louisiana and Washington state) last year came from the collision of black holes that were 29 times and 36 times the mass of the sun. They say this event happened about 1.3 billion years ago.

The key piece of evidence was a sound – a "fleeting chirp" the New York Times calls it – recorded by the detectors.

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One physicist who was not part of the research team tells the Associated Press “It’s really comparable only to Galileo taking up the telescope and looking at the planets.”

Who's behind the discovery?

Scientists have been working for decades to detect gravitational waves. The credit goes to two collaboratives. One based in Europe is called the Virgo Collaborative. The North American-based one is called the LIGO Scientific Collaborative. (LIGO stands for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory).

It was LIGO's twin detectors in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, that observed the gravitational waves.

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The U of M became part of the LIGO Collaboration in 2007 when Mandic joined the faculty after previously teaching at Cal Tech.

The university says gravitational waves can provide information about many phenomena in the cosmos, possibly even the Big Bang.

You can read the scientific paper reporting the discovery of gravitational waves here.

The U of M's Mandic says it will motivate researchers to look ahead to future gravitational wave detectors. He's leading a project to design an underground detector that would measure seismic waves.

Mandic spoke about Wednesday's news with WCCO.

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