Happy Holidays from ThinkTank Maths 2016

21 December 2016

One of the biggest events in the world of Physics this year was the first direct observation of Gravitational Waves, by the LIGO observatory - a truly international scientific collaboration - which comes almost exactly a century after Albert Einstein first predicted their existence.

ThinkTank Maths Limited wants to celebrate this exciting scientific exploit.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of space-time, caused by the movement of mass in the Universe, which move away from their source at the speed of light. These waves are not blocked by dust or matter (i.e. planets, stars, galaxies..) - unlike electromagnetic waves for example, allowing them to travel huge distances and bring information from very distant events in space and time, such as the beginning of our universe.

However measuring such an effect is a huge technical and theoretical challenge, which explains decades of unsuccessful attempts to do so from around the world until now.

Even though these gravitational waves come from some of the most powerful events in the universe, such as 2 black holes colliding and merging (as observed in February this year), by the time the waves reach Earth they’re so weak that even noise from passing cars near the detectors can easily drown out the signal.

As an illustration, if a gravitational wave were produced by the collision of two black holes (each 30 times the mass of our Sun), a billion light years away, the effect on earth would be a ten thousand times smaller than the width of a proton.

Building large detectors sensitive enough to observe the tiny ripples isn’t sufficient. The signals coming from the detectors look messy and have to pass through several complex mathematical procedures to finally obtain a clear observation of gravitational waves.

In celebration of this amazing human achievement ThinkTank Maths has made a Greetings Card which asks you to find the relevant signal from the space noise pictured in the image below. The fuzzy signal you see in the picture needs to be processed to reveal its meaning.

Entering your name defines the mathematics that needs to be applied to the signal. However, it may take a few different attempts to find the right mathematics to decrypt the signal.

Can you work out the right way to input your name and observe the message sent to you … all the way from Edinburgh?

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