In scientific breakthrough, a ‘win’ for the value of wonder

Sometimes, it’s hard for mere mortals to grasp the genius of Einstein.

We got another reminder of that today when physicists announced they have detected gravitational waves, the sound of two black holes colliding in space revealing the “ripples” of space and time, the New York Times reports.

Einstein predicted they’d find that 100 years ago.

If replicated by future experiments, that simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping, seems destined to take its place among the great sound bites of science, ranking with Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — come here” and Sputnik’s first beeps from orbit.

“We are all over the moon and back,” said Gabriela González of Louisiana State University, a spokeswoman for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. “Einstein would be very happy, I think.”

A primary researchers said that in the observation, the flow of time speeded up, slowed down, and speeded up again. Think about that for a second.

When the sound indicating the waves came to earth, nobody heard it. It was 4 in the morning, and only computers were listening.

It sounded like this:

We came dangerously close to missing it, the Times reports.

Dr. Weiss, who is retired with emeritus status at M.I.T., said his life now was more like that of a graduate student — that is to say, tinkering and making things work. This tendency was almost the undoing of the LIGO discovery. Only three days before the black hole chirp came in, Dr. Weiss was at the Livingston site, he recalled, and was horrified to find that the antenna readings were plagued by radio interference.

That needs to be fixed, he told his colleagues, imploring them to delay the engineering run. But they demurred, saying that everything was ready, that it was too late to stop the program. Lucky for them.

“We would have missed that big event,” Dr. Weiss said.

This is one of those times when we also have to marvel at the patience and persistence of scientists who are willing to spend their entire lives seeking something, knowing they may never find it.

It’s good that they got the payoff.

Adam Frank, a researcher, recounted his own journey on NPR today.

All my professional life I have been sitting in scientific talks about detecting — directly “seeing” — the vibrations of space and time called gravitational waves. At some point, after all those years, I began to think: “Hey, maybe this isn’t going to work. Maybe it’s just too hard or too subtle.”

In his column today, he reveals why today’s announcement is such a big deal.

But his aside is also educational:

It’s about patience and effort in the service of that most precious of human experiences: wonder. We can be proud to be part of a species that has gained such an understanding of the world. We can also be proud to be part of a nation that is willing to spend some of its hard earned treasure just to gain that understanding.