Gravitational Waves and Gravity Waves, What’s the Difference?


I’ve received this question so many times, so I thought I’d post, for reference purposes, the difference between a gravitational wave and a gravity wave. Yes, they are different creatures (although many authors would have you believe otherwise).

Gravitational waves are theoretical perturbations (ripples) in space-time. Much work is going into the discovery of gravitational waves using gravitational wave detectors like the US Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) or German-British GEO600, but so far, they have proven to be very elusive. In a previous Astroengine post, there is a new theory that perhaps gravitational wave detectors have reached a limit on their precision (i.e. the quanta of space-time, leading to the holographic universe conjecture). Gravitational waves, as predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, are thought to exist, but have yet to be detected. There are indirect observations of gravitational waves, from observations of the slowing period of binary stars; energy is most likely being lost through gravitational wave generation. Gravitational waves are thought to be generated also by black hole collision, pulsars and supernovae. More on Gravitational Waves…

Gravity waves are physical perturbations driven by the restoring force of gravity in a terrestrial environment. A common example of this are waves formed at an air-water boundary (i.e. the surface of the ocean). Wind creates an instability in the ocean, the restoring gravity force pulls down on the water, while the buoyancy of the water pushes it back up. A perturbation then propagates (i.e. ocean waves). Extreme examples include tsunamis and tides. Perturbations in the atmosphere can also be caused by gravity, where rising/falling air tries to regain equilibrium (after being forced over a maintain range, say), but gravity and buoyancy forces will cause it to propagate as a wave. More on Gravity Waves…

So, gravitational waves are perturbations in space-time (over universal scales). Gravity waves are perturbations in atmospheres (planetary scale). They most certainly are not the same thing.

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