Einstein, the most gangster scientist of the 20th century, thought of space and time as one and the same. His theory of relativity is complicated, but one of the solutions to his equations is, if an object in space is heavy enough, it will cause spacetime to bend, like a bowling ball on a trampoline. And if two heavy objects in space were to act in a violent way towards one another, like black holes merging, or neutron stars colliding, this would cause ripples through the fabric of spacetime. Hellooooo, gravitational waves.
A century later, instruments have been built that have proven Einstein’s theory; we can detect gravitational waves, we have detected gravitational waves, and you can find the instruments we are using to achieve this in America’s backyard. Light-splitting technology in pipes like arms outstretched, miles long, barreling through Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, built to experience something only ever theorized, an unstoppable force rippling through the universe.
“I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.”
–Walt Whitman, Section 44, Song of Myself
We’ve got new eyes (or ears) with which to look at the universe. And scientists all around the world coordinated to capture the cause of the latest gravitational wave detection–two neutron stars colliding. From Washington to Chile to a town outside of Pisa, Italy, every telescope alive turned toward the same spot in the sky, and caught the same thing.
Neutron stars live long, solitary lives, and I think they must have body issues. They’re the size of a small city, but they used to be bigger than our sun, and they retain their mass. The two we caught colliding had been hurtling towards one another for 11 billion years. They met 130 million years ago; it was a dance at the speed of light, fireworks like you’ve never seen. Heavy metals like gold and platinum ejected into the void, spacetime momentarily warped, the makeup of future planets scattered to the universe.
For a long time, we could only guess where a large part of the periodic table came from. But now we know it comes from something like this:
And sure, this all went down a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but there’s an intimacy to these kinds of discoveries available to everybody. I can find flecks of gold in the phone I use to help connect to the world, or in the necklace my grandmother left to me. I don’t need to understand the astrophysics to marvel. Wonder’s free.