On February 11, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) research team announced that they had discovered gravitational waves.1 This remarkable achievement by the world’s most sensitive detector (over a 4 kilometer laser baseline, LIGO can detect a distortion in space-time as small as one-thousandth the diameter of an atomic nucleus) affirmed what many physicists consider the most significant prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity—namely, that gravitational disturbances emanate waves.
Does This Discovery Affirm the Cosmic Creation Event?
The discovery of gravitational waves makes Einstein’s theory of general relativity the most exhaustively tested and best-proven principle in physics. Since general relativity is the foundation for the space-time theorems, proof of general relativity implies that the conclusion arising from the space-time theorems—namely, that space and time are created entities that came into existence at the cosmic creation event—is correct.
Alexander Vilenkin, one of the authors of the latest and most potent of the space-time theorems, wrote in his book Many Worlds in One, “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.”2
What is that problem? The space-time theorems imply that a causal agent brought our universe of matter, energy, space, and time into existence. Of all the possible candidates for the role of causal agent, the best match by far is the God of the Bible.
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 (the big bang).3 This inflation event must be extraordinarily fine-tuned to yield a future universe in which advanced life exists. When combined with all the other known evidence for cosmic fine-tuning, the fine-tuning of inflation implies that the causal agent who brought the universe into existence must be a personal Being.
The significance, scientifically and philosophically, of the gravitational wave discovery leaves little doubt that the LIGO team, or some part of the team, will be awarded the Nobel Prize.
The Unprecedented Mass of the Two Merging Black Holes
What makes this discovery even more incredible is that the gravitational waves resulted from the merger of two black holes weighing in at 36 and 29 times the sun’s mass. Astronomers had previously detected black holes weighing less than 15 times the sun’s mass and black holes that are thousands, millions, and even billions of times the sun’s mass. Until February 11, astronomers had not seen any black holes between 15 and 1,000 times the sun’s mass. Many theories for the history of the universe predicted that black holes within this mass range could not exist.
The black holes that are thousands, millions, or billions of times the sun’s mass exist in the nuclei of galaxies and globular clusters where the density of stars is so extreme that literally thousands, millions, or billions of stars merge together. Black holes less than 15 times the sun’s mass 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 leftover to form a black hole. For example, by the time a 40-solar-mass star finishes its nuclear burning and begins to collapse into a black hole, it 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, which explains the 15-solar-mass upper limit for the small black holes that astronomers previously detected.
One way black holes can reach about 30 solar masses is if the stars formed at an early point in cosmic history, when the universe contained only hydrogen and helium. In this case, the two black holes detected by LIGO would have had to form when the universe was less than a billion years old. This formation date raises a problem. The LIGO black holes are located about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth. If these black holes indeed are the aftermath of the universe’s firstborn stars, then they have somehow survived as a binary pair for about 12 billion years. Such longevity, though not impossible, is highly improbable.
Another possibility is that the two black holes formed in a galaxy with an extremely low abundance of elements heavier than helium. For example, astronomers have found a few dwarf spheroidal galaxies that possess a concentration of elements heavier than helium measuring a thousand times less than the concentration in the Milky Way Galaxy. Some star formation models predict that stars large enough to leave behind a 30-solar-mass black hole could form in such an environment. The challenge here is that these dwarf galaxies are not only tiny but also manifest a very low star formation rate. Consequently, the probability of these galaxies forming stars that would leave behind a substantial number of 30-solar-mass black holes appears very small.
The answers to the puzzle will require the discovery of more black hole merger events by LIGO and several other gravity wave telescopes, which will soon be fully operational. Once astronomers possess some clues as to the frequency and location of these kinds of events, they will be able to use that data to build a much more detailed understanding of the universe’s firstborn stars and star formation history.4 This understanding in turn promises to weaken doubts about the validity of the biblically predicted big bang creation model.5
Food for Thought
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- LIGO Caltech, “Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein’s Prediction,” news release, February 11, 2016, https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211.
- Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin, “Inflationary Spacetimes Are Incomplete in Past Directions,” Physical Review Letters 90 (April 2003): id. 151301, doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.90.151301; Alexander Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 176.
- Hugh Ross, “Cosmic Inflation: It Really Happened,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, August 3, 2015, https://www.reasons.org/articles/cosmic-inflation-it-really-happened.
- B. P. Abbott et al., “Astrophysical Implications of the Binary Black Hole Merger GW150914,” Astrophysical Journal Letters 818 (February 2016): id. L22, doi:10.3847/2041-8205/818/2/L22.
- Hugh Ross, “Big Bang—The Bible Taught It First!,” Today’s New Reason to Believe (blog), Reasons to Believe, July 1, 2000, https://www.reasons.org/articles/big-bang—the-bible-taught-it-first; Hugh Ross, A Matter of Days, 2nd exp. ed. (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2015), 135–44.