On the morning of Thursday, February 11, 2016 at a press conference in Washington DC, an international team of scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the discovery of Gravity Waves. Long sought after, this phenomenon was first postulated by Albert Einstein more than a century ago in his seminal 1915 paper on the General Theory of Relativity. While the major media jumped on this “universe changing” story, the reports were not adequate to fully explain the concept of Gravity Waves and the implications of their discovery. Leave it, then, to the innocent questions of a young daughter to her wise father to explain The Facts of Life and Gravity Waves. What follows is the transcript of the actual conversation that occurred through Facebook messaging on Friday, February 12, 2016:
Daughter: [Friday 3:20pm] “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory” (New York Times, February 12, 2016) “Scientists say they heard the faint chirp of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, fulfilling Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” (nytimes.com, accessed February 12, 2016)… did you see this? A lot of my friends liked this story, but they don’t know what it means.
Daddy: That’s because it’s not something tangible. We can’t really “see” a physical “wave.” What we’re doing is detecting radio waves – i.e., sounds. This branch of astronomy, called “Radio Astronomy” has been around for a while (it took off in the 1960s when a couple of Bell Labs engineers accidentally discovered it wasn’t pigeon poop, but the big bang, that was causing distortions in the phone signals). Radio Astronomy only measures the theoretical output of what we believe is happening at the physical level. Since we can’t really see what’s happening at the physical level, this is the next best thing.
Daughter: I’m trying to understand exactly what the discovery of gravitational waves means
Daddy: It means the end of the world as we know it
Daughter: does it actually?
Daddy: No, just kidding. All it means is that we’ve finally “seen” physical evidence that supports the prevailing theory for the last century.
Daughter: which is what exactly? that time is relative?
Daddy: We already knew time was relative. The case for gravitational waves has to do with the 4th force of nature (gravity) and how it is interwoven within the space-time continuum.
Daughter: i read the article and it’s too scientific for me to understand completely
Daddy: It means that strange stuff really could happen. Unfortunately, we’re not smart enough (yet) to imagine what that stuff is and how we can utilize it.
Daughter: ok, so it’s woven in the space-time continuum in that when there are such incredibly gravitational forces it can affect time?
Daddy: Yes, but that’s a gravitational lens. We already proved that. In fact, that proof happened soon after Einstein first suggested it in his 1915 paper. In 1991, Sir Arthur Eddington saw this during a solar eclipse. He had two teams – one stationed in Africa and another in Brazil. Between these two sets of observations, Eddington was able to confirm the light from stars behind the Sun was bent exactly as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity predicted. And if the Sun’s gravity is bending light, it’s bending both space and time.
Daughter: but if we want to utilize the gravitational forces they discovered. wouldn’t we have to create something that could be as dangerous as a black hole?
Daddy: No, we can use an existing black hole. This is the stuff of science fiction.
Daughter: yeah but i wouldn’t want to be anywhere near a black hole. i don’t think it turn out so well, that Star Trek How It Should Have Ended youtube video proved that i think [tongue emoticon]
Daddy: This is weirder stuff.
Daughter: idk what “weirder” stuff would be
Daddy: No one knows what weirder stuff will be. We need the science fiction writers to lead the way here.
Daughter: you mean like worm holes?
Daddy: Yes, it does make the concept of worm holes more real. Also warp drive.
Daughter: how does it help with warp drive?
Daddy: warp drive = equals a piece of piece bent so that the ends touch, making the distance between them no longer 11” but 0”
Daughter: so with this “power” it may be possible to do that.
Daddy: Not so much “power” as a repositioning of space – to make things once farther away not that far away anymore.
Daughter: plus what’s to say if they did figure something they would add into the world’s arsenal of military weapons
Daddy: Don’t worry about militarizing it – unless you’re talking galactic level wars. There’s too much energy for something as small as the planet Earth to harness or even house.
Daughter: ha ha but i mean by the time any of this is actually utilized we’ll probably both be long gone
Daddy: Yes, we’ll be long gone… or will we? If space-time can be warped, it not only means space can be warped (i.e., the distance between things) but also time can be warped. Maybe time begins to lose its meaning, just as Vonnegut wrote.
Daughter: but like to develop the technology to wield this ability to reposition space wouldn’t they need to study how it works in a more personal/intimate way?
Daddy: Yes. To coin a phrase, this will require a “quantum leap” in man’s creative thinking. (The irony is that the physics here is the exact opposite of quantum physics, it’s relativistic physics.) When someone eventually does figure out the next step, we’ll all say, “That was so obvious why didn’t we think of that?” just like they said after Einstein came up with Relativity Theory (and, incidentally, Quantum Theory – i.e., Brownian Motion).
Daughter: idk what brownian motion is – never heard of it
Daddy: Einstein’s Nobel Prize was not for relativity, but for his paper on Brownian Motion. (There was politics involved, that’s why he didn’t get it for relativity.) Brownian Motion is the same sort of “wavy motion” as gravitational waves, except at the subatomic level. It’s the visual movement of larger atomic particles caused by the existence of subatomic particles. So, we can’t see the cause of the motion, but the existence of the motion confirms the existence of these unseen subatomic particles. From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to full-fledged Quantum Theory, which Einstein never agreed with (hence his quote “God does not play dice with the universe”).
Daughter: but to study gravitational ways in an intimate way wouldn’t they need to leave earth to do it? Is it possible to create a small scale version of it to study in a lab?
Daddy: Theoretically, yes, you can create a small scale version, but we don’t (currently) have any way to detect it. Heck, we can barely detect the large scale version (in part – thankfully – because it’s so far away).
Daughter: is it because it is quiet or because we don’t have the technology to detect the sound in general
Daddy: It’s the “quiet” not the sound technology per se. We have the sound technology in general, but it’s just not developed enough to detect what would amount to very low energy output.
Daughter: is that something they can do easily or does it just go hand in hand with creating technology that gets more and more advanced?
Daddy: It took more than 30 years for scientists to discover (actually, “see”) protons after Einstein’s 1905 paper on Brownian Motion first set the stage for Quantum Theory. Even longer to see the quarks that make up protons (et al). These are the kind of improvements in technology we’re talking about – on the detection end. On the laboratory end – creating the physical place for the experiment to occur – might be a different story. In the case of subatomic particles, the lab and the detection device were one in the same, so it’ll probably be the same with gravitational waves. The (very big – both literally and figuratively) difference is the nature of the experiment. Quantum physics involves really teeny tiny things – and we still needed mile long accelerations to get a glimpse at the really good stuff. Until we can define the nature of the experiment, we won’t be able to even begin to guess what we need to do to physically create this experiment.
Daughter: What are we going to do with this newfound knowledge?
Daddy: Study it.
Daddy: Incidentally, I also like the dramatic implications of one of the lead researchers now having dementia. It’s like he peaked into Creation and couldn’t handle what he saw (reminiscent of another Star Trek TOS episode). There might be some fascinating philosophical meaning there.
Daughter: ha ha maybe. or maybe it means he just has bad genes