Only a day or so after a new bill was passed in the House of Representatives requiring National Science Foundation (NSF) funded grants to be justified and “in the national interest,” a major NSF-funded project in the interest of humanity and curiosity steals the headlines.
I excitedly posted in social media about LIGO scientists discovering evidence of a collision of astronomical proportions and possibly validating Albert Einstein’s century-old prediction that gravitational waves, exist. My scientific friends knew how “huge” this was, but I noticed that many of my non-scientist (and intelligent) friends were either like “so what,” curious to understand why it was huge, or admitted that it was over their heads. There are several good media articles on why this is an epic scientific discovery. However, I wanted to approach this from the perspective of why this is a big deal even if you are not a scientist.
Science wins the day. I often remind people that your smartphone, 5-day weather forecast, or new medical procedure came from sustained research and development. Many scientific and technological advances that we take for granted now emerged from basic science that may not have an “obvious” end game or outcome at the onset. It is very short-sighted to limit the scope of scientific research and stifle creativity that gave us the LIGO discovery, new medicines to fight diseases, or high-definition TV. The NSF has long funded the LIGO project and it certainly had its budget and ideological challenges. Yet, it persevered and look what we have now. University of Georgia Associate Professor of Physics Professor Craig Wiegert notes,
Would LIGO have been funded in its esarly stages, let alone for so many years, if the focus was simply immediate and tangible benefits to the US? Probably not. Yet the funding, particularly for the upgrades, has advanced the science of interferometry by leaps and bounds.
New field of science is advanced. Professor Weigert also pointed out that a new field of astronomy has been established,
For the longest time, electromagnetic waves (light) were the only way to observe the universe. More recently, neutrino detection has become a viable astronomical science. Now we can add gravitational wave astronomy to the list.
To me, this sounds like new opportunity to advance science and inspire the next generation of astronomers, physicists, and other technologists. Pittsburgh-based physicist Dr. Fred Bortz, formerly of Carnegie Mellon, echoed Wiegert by sending the following statement,
The real significance of this is the opening of a new realm of astronomical observations. I am looking forward to other detections that reveal previously unseen high-energy phenomena…..A lot of people are saying that this is the final test for General Relativity. Actually, it only confirms previous less direct evidence. Russell A. Hulse and James H. Taylor, Jr., won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for their observation of a pair of orbiting pulsars.
A 100 year old theory has some confirmation. For a simple explanation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity read this excellent piece at Space.com. As atmospheric scientist and physicist Dr. Edward Colon stated in a message to me,
Einstein posited that massive object(s) distort the fabric of space time. Furthermore, any acceleration of these masses should produce ripples in space time that a manifested as gravity waves which would be normally far to weak to detect except in the instance where very massive objects are interacting at very high speed. This was exactly the scenario used in this first detection – a rapidly orbiting binary black hole system………There are few instances in science where a century lapses between the initial proposal of a theory and experimental confirmation……..
As a meteorologist, I am familiar with the concept of assessing if weather was accurately predicted by numerical models. If gravitational waves are Einstein’s prediction of rainfall 100 years ago, LIGO just showed us that we have “raindrops” in the rain gauge.
Ok, so I still don’t get it. Why should I care about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity? Livescience.com provides 8 ways in your daily life that it is relevant. These include Global Positioning Systems (GPS), electromagnets, nuclear plants, and several other facets of your daily life.
It’s just cool. We must not limit or narrowly define scientific curiosity and discovery. I cannot imagine what our world would be like if someone limited or legislated the curiosity of Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Joanne Simpson, Thomas Jefferson, Sylvia Earle, Mae Jemison, Charles Drew, George Washington Carver, Neil Armstrong, or Jane Goodall. When we start placing limits on science, we are essentially stifling the wonder and curiosity of kids. We are also selfishly limiting our future. Thank you LIGO colleagues.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Dir., Atmospheric Sciences Program/GA Athletic Assoc. Distinguished Professor (Univ of Georgia), Host, Weather Channel’s Sunday Talk Show, Weather (Wx) Geeks, 2013 AMS President