This is a blog post written by my colleague Arne Lahcen who is a Resident Fellow at ESPI.
As if by a strange stroke of luck, the proof of existence of gravitational waves follows exactly 100 years after Einstein theorised them as part of his General Theory of Relativity of 1916. It appears that the beauty of physics is not only contained within its purity and abstraction, but also expressed in the evolution process and milestones of the study field itself! At first sight, a century might seem a very long timespan between the conception and experimental confirmation of a theory, especially through our eyes, living in the tech-savvy and ever faster changing world of today. Yet, such lags are not uncommon in the realm of paradigm-shifting scientific puzzles. In evolutionary biology, for instance, there was a 94 year gap between the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) and the discovery of the DNA molecule in 1953.
The astrophysicists and cosmologists of today are as excited about the detection of gravitational waves as final-year students are about the high school prom – and they have strong reasons to be so! In the first instance, this event can be seen as a crowning achievement of a long, intense and fruitful journey and, as a maturing process in our quest to create understanding. A light in the darkness telling us that we are on the right path towards an unknown destination. But there is more. Just like the high school prom, this milestone heralds the dawn a new era; one of new opportunities and upcoming changes. More specifically, it announces a phase transition in our study of the cosmos.
Until now all astronomical and astrophysical efforts were based on the observation of electromagnetic waves. In fact, our entire current understanding of the universe was constructed in this fashion – from Copernicus’ and Galileo’s findings to the Hubble Space Telescope. Thanks to modern age advances in technology, we have become able to gauge realities previously hidden from our eyes – making us see where we were blind before and leaving no part of the electromagnetic spectrum unexposed. We could see thousands of colour tints. Yet, we remained deaf to the beauty of sound. From now on, however, we will be able to perceive a totally new reality within the cosmos. Humanity is no longer only capable of looking into the cosmos, but also to ‘hear’ it!
The fact that the discovery was made so quickly after the sensitivity of the LIGO instruments was upgraded makes it extra promising. Earth’s “giant inner ear to the cosmos” seems to have picked up on a substantial – and thus potentially revealing – part of reality. This hope is reinforced by the fact that gravitational waves were travelling through space-time well before the cosmos became transparent to light, thereby shifting our observational horizon closer to the Big Bang itself.
But how do we as a society properly assess the full potential of this discovery? And, how can the new understanding generated by this scientific discovery be communicated in an understandable fashion? In spite of the wide media coverage of the discovery, the public at large tends to stay somewhat indifferent at best. In some cases there was even some cynicism on the importance of the event, alluding to its supposed marginal impact on humanity compared to other unfolding events. This is not helped by the fact that scientists, cautious by nature, tend to be rather conservative in their predictions about the future.
As our understanding of the cosmos and reality becomes ever more complex, more and more branches of society seem to alienate themselves from the dialogue on the implications of scientific breakthroughs. But this might be because we go about it in the wrong way. Perhaps increasing complexity should be matched by simplification as well? Einstein himself said: “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler”. So perhaps we need to explain in a story-telling fashion as well as in terms of equations and formulae. I am no scientist and therefore I am in no position to claim to understand – let alone explain – the true meaning of this discovery. But I do know that an individual who can both see AND hear will perceive and comprehend far more than someone who can only see. Experience teaches us that once a design brings a benefit, its performance and complexity will most likely increase very rapidly in a short period of time. In biology this is called evolution, in technology we call it innovation. Voices critical about the importance of this discovery are probably forgetting that so many of the current daily applications in life stem from discoveries that once were subject of ridicule for their supposed lack of utility. Some thinkers argue that just like ant colonies, human society is a super-organism. This means that we can jointly generate capabilities that go far beyond the sum of our individual abilities. It also means that the highest social structure, global society in our case, will display characteristics of an individual.
Looking at the level of the human super-organism from an outward-orientated perspective, it seems that the organism has finally developed a sense of hearing after centuries of improving sight. The cracking of the fabric of space-time we are hearing, caused by cataclysmic events distant in space and time, is the prelude of a new era of discovery. Also on this journey Europe is embarked with the European Space Agency preparing LISA, a mission that will allow for advanced detection of gravitational waves from space. Lisa, we are looking forward to you being our new ear!