Quixotic Science

young-einsteinThis week Ed Boyden, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at the MIT Media Lab, speaking for Edge.org said:

The history of science has shown us that you need the tools first. Then you get the data. Then you can make the theory. Then you can achieve understanding. No theory with no technology.

At the same time, a team of physicists confirmed that they had detected gravitational waves, on Thursday Febreary 11.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have detected gravitational waves,” said David Reitze, the executive director of the LIGO Laboratory, at the press conference. “We did it!”

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) had captured the signal of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, on Sept. 14, 2015(1). The discovery is a great triumph for three physicists—Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Ronald Drever—who bet their careers on the dream of measuring the most ineffable of Einstein’s notions.

The announcement has put Einstein and his general theory of relativity back under the spotlight. Einstein’s equations predict that when masses accelerate they will create ripples in space-time. As with black holes and the expanding universe, Einstein was not too keen on the idea. He would have liked a simpler universe. The existence of gravitational waves was indirectly confirmed in 1974 through observations of a binary pulsar(*), but it took still a long time to get a gravity wave detector up and running for direct detection: 100 years in total!

So, yes: no theory with technology, but what comes first, theory or technology?

Coming back to Boyden’s conversation: Almost all science stems from a need to explain what we see: to solve empirical puzzles:

if you look at other problems in biology like, what is life? how do species evolve? and so forth, people forget that there are huge amounts, centuries sometimes but at least decades of data that was collected before those theories emerged.

Not general relativity. The general theory of relativity is perhaps the clearest example of a scientific theory which did not come to attend neither a technology or a scientific demand. Einstein developed all his ideas about relativity with “thought experiments” (and a pretty good number of years of hard theoretical work.) He asked questions where others didn’t.

Yet the theory of general relativity itself is a great rarity in science: for this was not an idea motivated by any need to explain observations, but the result of Albert Einstein simply sitting down and thinking. It isn’t easy to find another example of such a rich, fertile theory conjured, as it were, out of nothing. (“There’s no space for today’s young Einsteins”)

A century ago general relativity answered no-one’s questions except its creator’s. Many theories are hit upon by two or more people at almost the same time; but if Einstein had not devoted years to it, the curvature of space-time which is the essence of gravity might not have been discovered for decades. (“The most beautiful theory”)

There was no data waiting for an explanation. There was no crisis in previous Newtonian physics to spark a revolution.

No one was demanding a new theory of gravity in 1915. We already had one – devised by Isaac Newton more than two centuries earlier – and it seemed to work fine. Sure, there were a few little puzzles, such as the anomalous motion of the planet Mercury. But these weren’t in any sense the stimulus for the new theory (even though it explained them). No, it arose because Einstein saw the world differently. (“There’s no space for today’s young Einsteins”)

The theory explained, to begin with, remarkably little, and unlike quantum theory, the only comparable revolution in 20th-century physics, it offered no insights into the issues that physicists of the time cared about most. (“The most beautiful theory”)

General relativity has worked the other way around. Who would have predicted that we’d use it every day when we use GPS in our cellphones? It sparked its own revolution. It demanded new tools, e.g. a large-scale physics experiment and observatory like the 4km-long tubes of LIGO, which has served to confirm gravitational waves now.

Very likely, the detection of gravitational waves will earn somebody a Nobel prize. Gravitational waves have the potential to show scientists totally new features of cosmic objects. Every time we have opened a new window on the cosmos with new radiation, there have been unexpected surprises. Journalists hurried to announce that the world is witnessing the birth of a new astronomy. Detecting the ripples of those two black holes is like Galileo’s first peek at the heavens through a telescope in 1609:

“If we’re ever lucky enough to have a supernova in our own galaxy, or maybe in a nearby galaxy, we will be able to look at the actual dynamics of what goes on inside the supernova, While light is often blocked by dust and gas, gravitational waves come right out [of the supernova], boldly unimpeded, As a consequence, you really find out what’s going on inside of these things.(Rainer Weiss as quoted in “Gravitational Waves: What Their Discovery Means for Science and Humanity”)

Interestingly, Kip Thorne sees the contribution of LIGO in a slightly different way:

“I think that cultural gift to our future generations is really much bigger than any kind of technological spin-off, than the ultimate development of technology of any kind. I think we should be proud of what we give to our descendants culturally.” (Ibid)

Confirmation of Einstein’s theory vindicates the pursuit of science and technology for its own sake, but it is not clear whether there is space for today’s young Einsteins.


(1) The LIGO Scientific Collaboration, & the Virgo Collaboration (2016). Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 (2016) arXiv: 1602.03837v1

(*) The Nobel Prize in Physics 1993 was awarded to Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor Jr. for the discovery of this new type of pulsar.

Featured Image: Young Einstein

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