Unlikely tourist draw of gravitational waves on West Coast

A laboratory on the West Coast of the USA has become an unlikely tourist draw after their announcement of the detection of gravitational waves, the last great unproven prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Part of the LIGO site in Hanford, Washington.

Part of the LIGO site in Hanford, Washington. Image by Tobin / CC BY-SA 2.0

The LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington saw visitor numbers increase tenfold in the days after their scientists helped confirm the existence of the waves. The gravitational waves were caused by the warping of space time in the collision of two gigantic black holes 1.3 billion light years away from Earth. The discovery has been heralded as the most important scientific discovery of the twenty first century.

Dale Ingram of LIGO Hanford explained that the discovery had also led to a less predictable surge in visitor numbers to their lab. “Our regularly-scheduled observatory tours have roughly averaged thirty to forty participants over the many years that these tours have been available to the public,” he said. “Our tour on 13 February, two days after LIGO’s discovery announcement, brought roughly 325 people to the facility.” The laboratory is now planning a major event in Hanford on 12 March when they expect up to 1,000 people to visit. “Going forward, we don’t really know what to expect for typical tour attendance though,” said Mr Ingram. “Time will tell.”

LIGO control room.

LIGO control room. Image by Tobin / CC BY-SA 2.0

The tours include an auditorium presentation, a walking tour of the central part of the laboratory and a visit to the control room where participants can speak with LIGO staff and see some real-time displays. Mr Ingram said: “We occasionally offer special public events such as family-oriented open houses and recreational star-gazing activities. These will be listed on the LIGO Hanford website.” They said all ages were welcome at the events, but that they were more suitable for adults and children of middle school age and above.

In recent weeks, visitors have been coming from all across the state of Washington and from much further afield to visit the laboratory. Any science buffs with plans to travel to either Washington or British Columbia this summer could easily make LIGO part of their plans, with Seattle just a three hour drive from the laboratory and Vancouver around five hours.

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