As the theoretical physicists have set up so impressive a cheering section for themselves (see today’s announcement in media, passim), I will save my throat for some other hurrah. The first detection of “gravity waves” by the academy, tending to confirm an hypothesis of Einstein’s from one hundred years ago (that he later disavowed), required many billions in gear from the taxpayers of several countries, and several decades of dedicated work by a small army of the exquisitely trained.
The happy result is a confirmation of several assumptions on which physicists had already been working through much of that last century; plus, I should think, Nobel prizes all round; and extraordinary hype for further big spending on scientific research. Already, for instance, the Italians have announced that they will get back to work on their own interferometer (the “Virgo” with arms nearly two miles in length), and I daresay everyone will now want to have one. A wonderful way to pile-on each national debt.
The accomplishment has been compared to Galileo’s first sighting of the moons of Jupiter through a 30-power telescope in early January, 1610. It was a prototype of the modern refractor. He does not tell us in his book, The Starry Messenger, how much the instrument cost him, but he did spend years mastering the optician’s art, grinding away.
Spy-glasses were all the rage in the Europe of his generation, and Galileo deserved praise for his patience in improving on them. Soon we could see the phases of Venus, and the rings of Saturn, and confirm a shy hypothesis of Copernicus from one century before (that repeated one from the Alexandrians, nearly two thousand years before that). Indeed, I noticed that the observing run on the Americans’ pair of upgraded “LIGO” interferometers was actually completed on 12th January. That would be the 406th anniversary of the completion of Galileo’s first observing run.
With the detection of gravity waves, we may soon be able to see previously invisible astrophysical objects and stellar remnants; to have another go in the field of “dark matter”; eventually, to see with gravity waves into formative moments of the universe (towards 13.8 billion years ago) still impenetrable through waves of radio or light. Let me not suggest we will have no fun.
Part of this fun will consist of watching large areas of “alternative” conjectural physics fade into extinction. Between what was announced today, and the nailing of the Higgs’ boson four years ago, the Standard Model of physics stands quite secure. Conversely, the truly arcane speculations of the really cool physicists through the last few decades look time-worn and pointless. I used sometimes to dine with certain particle physicists of huge self-regard. I think back on their arrogance, in passing.
At both the quantum end, and now the macroscopic end, unconjectural physics is back in vogue. Strike three has come from new mathematics to prove that there is no way to predict the more remarkable and consequential behaviour of sub-atomic particles, for which the axioms of mathematics could be any use. (See here, for instance.) “They will do what they do do and there’s no doing anything about it.”
Each new discovery is hailed as the “holy grail” of physics, but an impending Theory of Everything, long touted, remains not finitely, but infinitely beyond us. In the end, all we can do is observe, and act only in our tiny temporal spaces. There is so much more only dead men can know.
Notwithstanding, our view today of the signature of two irrefutably black holes, each equivalent to many times the mass of our Sun, spinning about each other many times a second at something approaching to the speed of light, then merging to release a gravitational radiation in a “dark flash” brighter than all the light in the universe, for a quarter second in time, does provide a moment of perspective. To God, that would be the twinkle of a firefly.