This week’s dramatic announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves was a major milestone for the fields of physics and astrophysics. The LIGO observation validates a lot of previously untested aspects of our understanding of general relativity, and promises the imminent opening up of a new field of observational astronomy, as LIGO sees other astrophysical sources of gravitational waves. Watching the announcement, the lead up to it, and the press stories that came out, many immediately as the embargo was lifted, I was struck by the general high quality of the stories in the press (I linked to a few of them in the last posting, but there are many more). Congratulations to whoever organized this, and to all the science writers who have done a great job producing enthusiastic but generally hype-free coverage of the story.
Unfortunately, those physicists brought in by major news organizations to tell the public what the significance of this is often can’t resist the temptation to indulge in the usual hype. At the Wall Street Journal today, Michio Kaku’s commentary is labeled Riding Gravity Waves to the Big Bang and Beyond, and subtitled “Once again, Einstein’s theory of relativity is confirmed by scientists. Next stop: Creation.”
There’s nothing in his piece about what else LIGO might observe and what we might learn from it about the universe. Instead, it’s all about the big bang, Creation, and before the big bang, things which as far as I can tell, LIGO data is highly unlikely to tell us anything about:
Now we are witnessing the third great revolution in telescopes, the use of gravity waves to open a new chapter in astronomy. For the first time, waves from the very instant of creation might be observed, giving us “baby pictures” of the universe as it was born. High-school textbooks may have to be rewritten to incorporate the new discoveries coming from this third generation of telescopes.
This may also have philosophical implications. Right now the big-bang theory doesn’t tell us what banged, why it banged, and what caused it to bang. It only tells us that there was a bang. But if space-based gravity-wave detectors similar to LIGO’s detectors can measure the radiation emitted an instant after the big bang, then, using mathematics, one can run the equations backward to determine what set off the big bang in the first place, in effect answering the biggest question of all: What banged and why?
When Einstein postulated gravity waves a century ago, he not only opened up an entirely new chapter in astronomy, he also opened the door to answering the most important philosophical questions of all time, including the creation of the universe.
Over at the New York Times, in the Sunday Review, Lawrence Krauss has a more sensible piece, entitled Finding Beauty in the Darkness. Multiverse mania seems though to be irresistible, as he ends up with this summary of the physics significance:
Ultimately, by exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.