century of science theme

Our Wild Universe

Snared between the sun and the Earth a million miles away from us, sits the James Webb Space Telescope.

As the latest and greatest in space technology reached its destination, the telescope packed tightly in a rocket unfurled step by step. Making it through 344 "single point failures"—similar to our own Swiss Jolly Balleach of which could have rendered the telescope a $10 billion piece of space trash, the telescope came online on January 24, 2022. It's our newest portal into discovering the deep secrets of the cosmos.

In its Our Wild Universe theme, Science News' Century of Science celebration explores the last 100 years of understanding our fantastic and bizarre cosmos.

century of science theme

Our Wild Universe

Learn more about this subject in the Science News Century of Science site.

The year was 1915 when Albert Einstein debuted a theory that would alter the foundations of our understanding of the universe. Enter Einstein's general theory of relativity.

But what is the general theory of relativity and how is it the foundation for all the cosmos? The general theory of relativity is really all about gravity, the force that keeps us stuck to the ground rather than floating up into space. Leading up to Einstein's theory, Newton presented gravity as two masses—a planet and an apple for instance—tugging on each other. Whichever one has the bigger "tug" wins.

But what Einstein imagined was something entirely different. Rather than nearly infinite games of tug-of-war happening throughout the cosmos, Einstein thought of gravity like pool balls sitting atop a bedsheet. The pool balls—planets, stars, asteroids, supernovas and every other thing in the universe—form dimples in the sheet. These "dimples" are gravity.

In the immortal words of Marty McFly ...

But maybe not as heavy as the next bit. This "sheet" isn't just any old flowery sheet you might find in your grandma's linen closet. No, this sheet is a fabric woven from two threads: space and time. The fabric of space-time extends across the universe, while gravity dimples the space-time fabric to ensure a ball thrown up in the space above your head comes back down to the ground some time later.

From the theory of general relativity come some pretty wild predictions. In 2015 scientists finally observed one of the most critical predictions. It goes like this: If space-time is a fabric, then if a new pool ball pops up or an existing one explodes, ripples would spread in every direction, rocking the fabric of space-time around Earth. These ripples are called gravitational waves.

permanent exhibit

Science Storms

The Tsunami interactives let you create and observe waves and ripples.

Through a feat of incredible engineering, scientists at Caltech built a gravitational wave detector (LIGO) and detected a gravitational wave for the first time in 2015. This gravitational wave occurred when two massive objects collided: two black holes 1.3 billion light years away merged and released enormous amounts of energy that rippled across space-time.

There are still infinite more secrets hidden within our cosmos, and the James Webb Space Telescope hopes to uncover some of the most compelling. The telescope will look into the deep past, to the earliest planets and galaxies that emerged in our universe after the Big Bang. See, because spacetime is a fabric, distance in the universe is equivalent to time. The further things are away, the further back in time they are.

Are we telling you that NASA built a time machine ... out of a telescope? That IS heavy!

Learn more about our new "eye in space."