LAST Friday, the entire world was astounded as scientists in the US announced that, using two gigantic, incredibly sensitive instruments buried underground in locations almost 3,000 kilometers apart, they had detected ‘gravitational waves’ – minute ripples in space-time predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago but until now only existing in theory.
In much the same way as objects moving through air or water will create ripples, mass moving in space can create ripples in the very fabric of space-time. This was a prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity; while physicists have been fairly confident for about the last 40 years that the theory is correct, until now proof through direct observation has been elusive.
The problem is it takes a great deal of mass to make the tiniest ripple; even though, according to the theory, you can make a ripple in space-time by punching your hand in the air, the effect is so infinitesimally small it would never be detectable. The signal that proved the theory was no more than a mere blip – scientists likened it to measuring the distance to the nearest star with an accuracy of the width of a human hair – and it took the collision of two massive black holes, each with a mass about 30 times greater than the Sun, to create it.
That little blip was made 1.3 billion years ago, and passed through the Earth on September 14, 2015, taking just seven one-thousandths of a second to travel the 3,000 kilometers from one detector to another. Even if one does not really understand the science – and we cheerfully include ourselves in that majority – it is a wondrous thing. The fabric of space-time is the physical foundation of all Creation; no matter what your faith, our being able to detect a ripple through it is, in a sense, a nudge from God.
And if we are to try to interpret it in some way, we think its meaning is this: Coming as it does in a time when our world is dealing with widespread conflict, economic strife, epidemics, political battles, a damaged climate, and all manner of social ills, it is a reminder to us to think beyond our everyday pettiness, to keep learning, and to keep exploring.
It simply cannot be a coincidence that the practical application of our new ability to detect the elusive phenomenon of gravitational waves will give us, scientists say, a much greater ability to explore and study the universe. While everyone may debate the source of this amazing gift, the one thing we should all agree on – the one thing we must all agree on – is that we shouldn’t let it go to waste.