Happy Sunday my friends. Over the last week the science community has been buzzing. In many many ways this is great… I love it when the front page of newspapers are filled with issues of science; what other kind of news is there right? There is however something much more irritating that comes alongside this which is the inundation of cliched comments and Facebook posts from anyone who has touched an elementary science book in their lives. This is why I have taken the weekend to reflect on the detection of gravitational waves and what it means for science.
The first point I make is the union of experimental and theoretical physics. The newspapers are very keen to tell you that gravitation waves have been discovered. But is this fair? Gravitational waves have been mainstream theoretical physics for about 100 years. What this latest experiment does is validate gravitational waves. Please don’t get me wrong – the experimental validation of a theoretical concept is a huge thing. As theorists we need our theories to be tested and proven at some point, or they end up discredited. But in the scientific community there has been little doubt over the existence of gravitational waves, the doubt was around if an event large enough to detect them would be visible in the near future to human technology. That said, let us not play down the event that has occurred. For me the most startling thing about this latest discovery is the sheer scale. The coalescence of two black holes with a combined mass of around 60 times that of the sun is not something to be sniffed at, or indeed anything I thought I would have the pleasure of witnessing.
What is most exciting about this discovery is the future. The reality of this detection is it is the final piece in experimentally verifying Einstein’s theory of relativity. What we have discovered is that we can detect gravitational waves, which now we know how will surly lead to more and more detection. There has been considerable doubt if we would ever be able to actually detect these waves with our limiting human equipment on planet Earth. Well now that has been done, hopefully the interest in gravity will be reopened and we will have a definitive understanding of what it actually is. When people describe gravity as objects flowing from where time moves slowly to where time moves fast, you wont seem like some mad sci-fi kid any more.
Something that is really exciting about this waves is this is the first detection of anything coming out of a black hole. We have observed whole stars being shredded and sucked into black holes, but we can’t detect things coming out of them. These waves carry information about a place about as far out of human reach as you can get. If we can start to unmask the mystery of a black hole I have little to no doubt we will unravel the secret of our entire universe. We have a rich, complex but totally incomplete understanding of black holes. Surely the next infamous scientists will make this their focus.
As a young scientist starting a journey in Mathematical and Theoretical physics this will mean increased interest – increased grants, funding and hopefully a resurgence in interest in tackling the big questions. The same happened with string theory – there was not one linear path, but rather several string revolutions where a new discovery was made and off the back of that came huge interest and progression in the field. Whatever happens – this cannot be bad news.