Black Holes, Matter

I’ve done a lot of soul searching, and I’m finally ready to admit that I’m addicted to making fun of Donald Trump. This week, as rehab, I’ve decided to get my mind off him by discussing LIGO’s recent detection of gravitational waves. And did you know that the inside of LIGO is the purest vacuum on Earth, other than Donald Trump’s skull? My God I need help.

Scientists recently announced that last September, the massive instrument known as LIGO made the first ever direct detection of a gravitational wave. Here’s the skinny: a long time ago (1.3 billion years) in a galaxy far far away (1.3 billion light years), two black holes collided, releasing in a fifth of a second 50 times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. Three solar masses were converted to energy in the form of gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of spacetime propagating outward like waves in a jumprope you’ve flicked one end of. One century after Einstein predicted their existence, a gravitational wave from this collision was detected in Louisiana, where the state’s top scientists determined that it had originated 6,000 years ago, when the Earth was first created.

Part of the hoopla over LIGO is due to its amazing precision, with the scientific consensus being that, other than John Mayer’s guitar, it’s the most sensitive instrument ever made. Using lasers and mirrors, LIGO can detect changes in distance 10,000 times less than the width of a proton. Granted, American protons are generally two or three times wider than European ones, but it’s still impressive.

That precision is why the National Science Foundation has poured $1.1 billion into LIGO since the 1970s. If you think this cost sounds absurd, consider that $5 billion is projected to be spent on this presidential election cycle alone. That’s why we need to put Bernie Sanders in charge of fundraising for science. With all the nickels and pennies people donated, the NSF would have enough metal to make a whole new instrument.

LIGO has also enjoyed such media exposure for being the first of a whole new kind of sensor –- one that senses waves, like our ears, rather than light, like our eyes. Scientists hope to use this capability to “hear” things they could never see, such as oscillating black holes, the early universe, and why kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. In the words of theoretical physicist Katie Mack, “we’re not just seeing some vague image in the telescope. […] This is gravity coming to your house and moving your stuff.” I just wish she would have told me we were having gravity over, so I could have tidied up a bit.

While some, like Katie Mack, are enthused by LIGO’s promise of advances, others are outraged by the notion of gravitational waves sneaking into Earth without documentation. Donald Trump has roused large crowds arguing that we must send these alien waves back to space:

“When black holes send gravitational waves, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending waves that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good gravitational waves.”

The truth is, every time physics has opened a door like this, unforeseen discoveries and inventions have followed. Take the laser for example. When it was invented in the 60s, people saw no uses for it, but now it’s an invaluable tool that scientists use to fuck with their cats. Sensing this potential for a breakthrough, Congress is considering sharply increasing its funding for NASA by allocating to the organization a crisp $20 bill and an expired RadioShack gift card.

I’ll leave you with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s famous adage: “Physics is like sex: Sure, it might give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” What he means is, do it for fun, and don’t be afraid to spend up to a billion dollars on it if you don’t get it. And always wear protection. Goggles, that is.


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