by Patrick Appel
Scientists are, like the rest of us, impatient. They are, much more often than the rest of us, justified in this. Imagine dedicating your career to learning something new about the mechanics of the world—the gravitational forces exerted on a cell membrane, the flappings of a bee’s wings, the earliest churnings of the cosmos—and then imagine actually finding that thing. Now imagine that, instead of doing what every impulse would guide you to do (share that news with everyone you know/share that news with everyone you don’t know/shout that news from the rooftops or at least your Facebook page) … you are made to wait. And wait. And wait. Until, many months later, your work has been deemed acceptable for proper publication.
… The Big Bang news is simply emblematic of a larger trend. As the philosopher David Weinberger puts it: “Scientific knowledge is taking on properties of its new medium, becoming like the network in which it lives.”
Lawrence Krauss puts the significance of the discovery, should it hold up, in layman’s terms:
If it turns out to be confirmed by other experiments, think about what this discovery implies for our ability to explore the universe (besides the other remarkable implications for physics): when we use light to look out at the distant universe, we can only see back as far as three hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, when the universe cooled sufficiently to become transparent to light. But gravitational waves interact so weakly that even waves produced less than 10-35 seconds after the Big Bang can move through space unimpeded, giving us a window on the universe at essentially the beginning of time.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the current result is in some tension with earlier claimed upper limits from other experiments, so we will need to wait for the results of a host of other experiments currently operating that can check this result.
For some people, the possibility that the laws of physics might illuminate even the creation of our own universe, without the need for supernatural intervention or any demonstration of purpose, is truly terrifying. But Monday’s announcement heralds the possible beginning of a new era, where even such cosmic existential questions are becoming accessible to experiment.