Monday, February 15, 2016

Making Gravitational Waves

In the news, an international team of astrophysicists recently managed to detect gravitational waves created by the collision of two black holes.  This has caused quite a lot of excitement within the astrophysicist community, because it confirms something that Albert Einstein first theorized back in 1916.

In my opinion, scientists do tend to get overly worked up about these sorts of things.  You'd think, from the way they carried on about the news, that they'd found a cure for cancer or a cheap, infinitely renewable energy source or an unlimited food supply with which to feed the world or something.  I mean, okay, gravitational waves do sound kind of cool but, really, what do they mean to the average person?

To demonstrate the enormity of their discovery, the scientists converted the gravitational wave that they detected into sound, and played it for the public.  The sound that resulted was a barely-audible "chirp".  Marc Kamionkowski, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University, gushed "It's one thing to know sound waves exist, but it's another to actually hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony."  Excuse me?  Beethoven's Fifth?  This was a CHIRP man!  Not a symphony, a CHIRP!  A barely-audible chirp at that, even after being enhanced!  Get a grip there, Sheldon!

The gravitational waves were apparently detected by a pair of ultra-sensitive 1,1 billion-dollar observation facilities known as Laser Inteferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (or LIGO for short).  Now there's a Buck Rogers type gadget name for you!  I can almost hear Ming the Merciless shouting "Activate the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory!  MWAAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!"

And, call me a cynic, but I couldn`t help at least briefly pondering the possibility that maybe the scientists just made the whole thing up to justify the funding of their 1.1 billion-dollar LIGO set.  I mean, let`s face it, if they came back completely empty-handed after being handed over a billion dollars, their funding sources might just, you know, re-think giving them another billion and use the money for something productive instead.  So I could see where there might be a strong temptation to record a chirp, using perfectly ordinary sound recording equipment, and then tell the public that it had been picked up by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, not that I`m actually accusing anybody of doing such a thing, of course.

So, let`s grant that that the LIGO did actually record a gravitational wave and that Einstein has been proven right exactly a hundred years after predicting that they existed.  Cool.  Good for him.  But, um.... really, so what?

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