When (Neutron) Stars Collide: Secrets of Gravity and Elements Exposed in New MIT-Caltech Study


Tyler Creighton, Centurion Staff

Scientists have for the first time witnessed the astronomically groundbreaking collision of two neutron stars, this is exciting news for Bucks Professor Lynn McCarty who has a background in Physics and teaches Astronomy.

Neutron stars are the densest and smallest stars in the known Universe, the result of the explosion of a massive star and gravitational collapse compressing the core down to an atomic level of density. These stars depending upon mass will sometimes continue collapsing into black holes.

Binary star systems are systems where two stars’ orbit around their joint center of mass. Collisions in such systems are the result of each star spiraling inward due to gravitational forces; this is essentially the kind of death dancing and consummation recently observed by research scientists from Caltech and MIT.

The first detection of this merger or “neutron star inspiral” came on August 17, 2017 at 12:41:04 UTC and scholarly reports have just recently been published in October.

This observation would not have been possible without the Advanced LIGO and Advanced Virgo gravitational-wave detectors. These detectors use lasers to emit signals when detecting passing gravitational waves.

The LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) is located both in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington, while its European counterpart the Virgo detector can be found in Cascina, Italy.

Like ripples in space-time, gravitational waves move through space as sound moves through air.

This revolutionary observation per Professor McCarty holds weight for two distinct reasons:

  1. The observation may explain how the formation of heavy elements could be possible by way of the immense energy released.
  2. This is the first time gravitational waves have been observed coming from the same source as light. Previous gravitational wave detections have been due to black hole collisions in which light could not escape.


According to the peer reviewed publication “GW170817: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Neutron Star Inspiral” the light emitted from the merger was in the form of short gamma ray bursts, one of the brightest and most energized phenomenon in the Universe. This kind of energy can produce heavier elements such as gold or uranium.

Not only does this uncovering hold weight for the scientific community universally, but for Professor McCarty it holds a bit of personal significance as well, as she had once studied under the tutelage of the late Professor Joe Weber who had been “a pioneer in gravitational wave detection”.

Scientific students who find themselves aspiring to become research scientists intrigued by such topics as gravitational waves or short gamma ray bursts could hope to attain a PhD in either Physics or Engineering with a specialized thesis. It would also help to complete graduate work at either MIT or Caltech under a scientist currently in the LIGO Scientific Consortium.