When a gravitational wave ripples through the Earth, it will stretch one arm of LIGO while squashing the other. The light, which has a fixed speed and won’t warp with the rest of the world, then takes a different length of time to travel down each arm. The scientists can measure this difference to detect the wave.
The challenge is that the ripples caused by gravitational waves are minuscule since, despite appearances, gravity is a very weak force. In terms of the squashing and stretching, “we’re talking about these tiny, fractional changes,” says Demos, “roughly one-thousandth the size of a proton.”
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