By George B. Kauffman
The most recent universally acclaimed science story is without doubt the discovery of gravitational waves. In a galaxy a billion light years away (a light year is more than 6 trillion miles!) two massive black holes merged. Spacetime twisted, contorted, and rearranged itself. Ripples in its fabric shot out across the cosmos. Such occurrences occur hourly somewhere in the universe. The notable fact of this one is that on Earth, we detected these ripples, an event known as GW150914 (for September 14, 2015). In the fraction of a second that we “heard” black holes shake up spacetime, a new window on the universe was opened where we hope to hear more black holes, cosmic phase transitions, and even the birth of the universe. The last big prediction of general relativity—the existence of gravitational waves—has been directly confirmed on the hundredth anniversary of Einstein’s publication of his theory of general relativity http://www.sciencemag.org/site/special/generalrelativity We now have a new way of advancing our understanding of gravity, the force that shapes our universe.
Supercomputer simulation of spacetime during a black hole merger
“GW150914…marked an extraordinary scientific milestone by a very curious species.”
The team of scientists who built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational- Wave Observatory (LIGO) followed Galileo Galilei’s advice, “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” On September 14, 2015, during its first engineering run, spacetime ripples from GW150914 wiggled the separation of mirrors 4 kilometers (about 2-1/2 miles) apart in the LIGO detectors, situated in Hanford, WA, and Livingston, LA, by about 10−16 cm, one-thousandth the size of a proton. They made the too-small-to-measure measurable by using interferometry, a technique invented by physicist Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931), the first American Nobel laureate. GW150914 not only awed scientists but also captured the attention and imagination of much of humanity.
This achievement is “big science” at its best. Researchers identified a lofty and worthy goal, and NSF (U.S. National Science Foundation), in partnership with Caltech (California Institute of Technology) and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), funded and continued it for almost 50 years until they succeeded. There were ups and downs. The brilliant invention of the first gravitational-wave antenna by physicist Joseph Weber (1919-2000) was followed by false-alarm detections. NSF built LIGO in the face of skepticism by astronomers and was forced to reorganize the project after an early management meltdown. The world of science today is more globally collaborative than competitive, there is still a place for national pride and strategic commitment. U.S. scientists can be proud of U.S. leadership in the discovery of gravitational waves.
In “The Chirp Heard Across the Universe,” the New York Times editorial board argued that the justification for NSF’s billion-dollar investment in LIGO was only curiosity about our place in the universe, with no expectation that it would lead to “a better toaster.” However, that is not the entire story. NSF is unique among federal science agencies in its mission to fund discovery science. It is the agency committed to satisfying the boundless curiosity of our species.
If history is any guide, some of the new knowledge generated by these discoveries will result in future technological advances that transform our very existence. Michael Faraday’s 19th century research with magnetism led to the science that supports everything involving electricity and light, making good on his reply to British Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone when asked about the utility of his research: “One day, sir, you may tax it.”
GW150914 may have been an ordinary event in the larger cosmos, but on Earth, it marked an extraordinary scientific milestone by a very curious species. Furthermore, we still don’t know where it will all lead.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, respectively.