Scientists have spent centuries studying how matter works. They’ve boiled it, they’ve frozen it, and they’ve even thrown it into particle colliders and smashed it up. They’ve learned a lot about what matter does in these conditions, but--that’s just what we can do on Earth.
“A neutron star is basically the densest object aside from a black hole. When they collide, the matter itself is deformed in such a way that we can probe densities inaccessible to laboratories on Earth,” Leslie Wade said.
Wade is Assistant Professor of Physics at Kenyon College. Neutron stars are basically neutron-rich atomic nuclei that have grown star-sized. When they smash into each other, they give off gravitational waves- tiny expansions and contractions of space itself. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory can see these gravitational waves, and Wade hopes to use these to figure out what happens to the matter in neutron stars when it gets smooshed.
“Given how much the neutron stars deformed before they merged, that information can be mapped right back to the inner workings of neutron star matter,” Wade said.
By outsourcing matter experiments to colliding neutron stars and interpreting the resulting gravitational waves, Wade hopes to take humans’ understanding of matter out of this world.