Alan Sheidler of Moline and his son Eric adjust their telescope during a 2012 viewing event hosted by the Popular Astronomy Club at Niabi Zoo in Coal Valley.


On Thursday, a team of scientists announced they officially found gravitational waves — but, why exactly is that a big deal?

Astronomy experts — and amateurs — from around the Quad-Cities weighed in on the shock factor.

“It’s sort of a wow day,” said Cecilia Vogel, a professor of physics at Augustana College, Rock Island. “This is like finding a needle in a haystack, except probably on a bigger scale.”

To detect the waves, scientists picked up on ripples formed from two black holes colliding about 1.3 billion light-years away, an event Vogel calls “very, very rare” and “catastrophic.” To break down just how rare, Vogel offered up another metaphor. 

“Let’s say there’s a conversation going on three miles away and you can suddenly hear it with your ears,” she said. “The event of the black holes colliding from so far away is really hard to detect, you could barely detect it, so it’s really impressive."

"But this is the kind of thing they’ve been waiting to happen, something big enough," Vogel added. "This proves what we've believed about gravity for a long time. The more we understand this, the more we can figure out how to make more trips to space."

Dana Taylor, director of the Q-C Astronomical Society, called the latest discovery a final and deserved nod to Albert Einstein, who first theorized about the ripples in 1916. 

“The big thing is it’s another validation of Einstein’s theories from a century ago,” Taylor said. “It validates what we thought about gravity — the fact that they were able to detect it is absolutely incredible."

And, Alan Sheidler, president of the Quad-City Popular Astronomy Club, said the breakthrough opens up a slew of other scientific doors.

“Nobody knew how Einstein’s relativity would impact our lives, and it has in so many ways today,” Sheidler said. “Who knows what will this will do for science a hundred years from now? That’s the exciting thing for me.”


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).