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Category: Space Published: November 6, 2018 Updated: November 27, 2023

By: Christopher S. Baird, author of The Top 50 Science Questions with Surprising Answers and Associate Professor of Physics at West Texas A&M University

Yes, gravity can form waves. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime that travel through the universe. If you think of gravity as a force acting at a distance, it is difficult to visualize how gravitational waves could form. However, if you use the more accurate description of gravity that was developed by Einstein in his general theory of relativity, these concepts become more logical.

General relativity describes gravity as a warping or curvature of space and time. All objects warp spacetime. When other objects travel through this warped spacetime, they end up traveling along curved paths. These curved paths look like they result from a force being exerted on the objects, when in reality they result from spacetime itself being warped. For instance, when you throw a baseball to your friend, it follows a smooth parabolic trajectory under the influence of gravity. Isaac Newton's laws would say that earth's mass is creating a gravitational force which acts on the baseball, gradually pulling the baseball down from straight-line motion. However, the more accurate description goes like this: The earth warps space and time. The baseball is actually traveling in a straight line relative to spacetime, but since spacetime itself is curved, this straight line becomes a curve when viewed by an external observer. In this way, there is not really any direct force acting on the baseball. It just looks that way because of the spacetime warpage. If all of this sounds too strange to be believed, you should know that Einstein's general relativity has been mainstream science for over a hundred years and has been verified by countless experiments.

In principle, all objects warp spacetime. However, low-mass objects such as houses and trees warp spacetime to such a small extent that it's hard to notice their effects. It takes high-mass objects such as planets, moons, or stars in order for the gravitational effects to be noticeable. The more mass an object has, the more it warps spacetime, and the stronger its gravitational effect on other objects. For instance, a black hole has such a high amount of mass in such a small volume that even light cannot escape. Inside the event horizon of a black hole, spacetime is so strongly warped that all possible paths that light can take eventually lead deeper into the black hole.

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