Like many homo sapiens on planet Earth, I was thrilled by this month’s announcement of the first direct detection of gravitational waves. This finding surely ranks with the greatest scientific discoveries of the past 200 years.
Nobody in the scientific community doubted the existence of gravitational waves. They are absolutely required by Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity and have been indirectly inferred from other astrophysical observations. The great achievement here was the construction of the most sensitive scientific instrument ever built — able to measure changes in distance a thousand times smaller than the nucleus of an atom.
We now have a new sense organ with which to fathom the cosmos. Previously, astronomers could detect only electromagnetic radiation from outer space, including visible light, radio waves and X-rays. Gravitational radiation is totally different — as different as sound is to light — and reveals an entirely new range of phenomena previously invisible and silent. It is as if you were born deaf: You could see, but you had no comprehension of speech, of music, of the chirpings of birds. Then suddenly you could hear sounds. With the ability to detect gravitational waves, we may learn about the explosion of stars, the formation of black holes, the lumpiness of matter in the early universe. As with the first understanding of DNA, we cannot imagine the insights and revelations that may emerge.
As I watched the Feb. 11 news conference broadcast from the California Institute of Technology, I was struck by the fact that the leaders of this scientific project are well into their senior years. Caltech’s Kip Thorne is in his mid-70s, and MIT’s Rainer Weiss is in his early 80s. (Ronald Drever, the third leader of the team, is 85 and suffers from dementia.) These guys are not hot-shot young mavericks like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. They have been working on this project, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), for 40 years.
Gerald Ford was in the White House when Weiss and Thorne had their first meeting in a D.C. hotel room to discuss the outrageous idea of measuring a movement 1,000 times smaller than the pit of an atom. Over the subsequent decades, thousands of pages of equations and design concepts were scribbled, hundreds of scientists were recruited, and novel equipment and prototypes were imagined, built and tested. Generations of graduate students have come and gone without seeing the fruits of their labors as the project received grant after grant from the National Science Foundation, which had every right to be skeptical of this wild dream. It was like building three Brooklyn Bridges, one after another, with only a hope and a prayer that the thing would hold up.
The world at large, and the United States in particular, has developed an unfortunate need for instant gratification. We live not only in the age of information. We live in the Age of the Now. We grow impatient with printers that cannot churn out 10 pages per minute, or with computer screens that take 30 seconds to boot up. We avoid investing in companies that do not promise payoffs within a few years. Federal research and development, as a fraction of gross domestic product, has been going down and down. Perhaps even our foreign policy has been plagued by a hurried view of the world, seeking immediate results.
In science, as in many other precincts of the Age of the Now, too often we celebrate the instant discovery, the sudden breakthrough, the quick and glamorous result. Drever, Thorne and Weiss, and the many scientists and institutions that supported their dream, did not seek instant gratification. They had a vision, and they wandered the desert with that vision for 40 years.
In the early 1970s, I was one of Thorne’s graduate students in physics at Caltech — shortly before he teamed up with Weiss and Drever to start work on LIGO. Even then, Thorne was deeply involved with the theoretical study of black holes, experimental tests of Einstein’s theory of gravity and the mathematics of gravitational waves. He worked carefully and methodically. He was patient with his students. He believed in the slow but steady progress of science. He taught his students much at that time, not just about physics but about an approach to the world. And, by example, he has continued to teach us ever since.
Alan Lightman is a physicist, novelist and professor of the practice of the humanities at MIT.