To people who understand such things, the discovery of gravitational waves is a big deal. Suddenly, a clearer picture of the universe is possible, even if that vision remains cloudy for most of us.
Jenne Driggers and Cody Messick, two scientists who played a small role in a project that last week earned the Nobel Prize in Physics, are among those who understand the importance of the 2015 discovery. Driggers, who attended schools in the Evergreen district, is a postdoctoral researcher at California Institute of Technology; Messick, a graduate of Prairie High School, is a doctoral candidate at Pennsylvania State University. The prize goes to Kip Thorne and Barry Barish of Cal Tech, and Rainer Weiss of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but Driggers told The Columbian, “I feel like I’ve won 1/1000th of a Nobel Prize, too.”
In the world of physics — or chemistry, economics, literature or other categories that expand the breadth of human knowledge — there is no higher honor. And the presence of a local connection to this year’s award in physics provides an opportunity to explore the importance of science and humanity’s quest to better understand the universe around it.
Gravitational waves were first predicted by Albert Einstein, but they remained theoretical until recently. According to Vox.com, “Around 1.3 billion years ago, in a far-flung corner of the universe, two black holes — the densest, most destructive forces known to nature — collided with each other.” The result, Einstein postulated, was that “such a massive collision would distort the very fabric of space and time itself. Like a stone cast into a pond, the cataclysmic disturbance would ripple outward at the speed of light, filling the ocean of the universe with gravitational waves.”
Those waves pass through the earth. Scientists say that if a gravitational wave passed through you and was observable, you would see one of your arms grow longer than the other. If you were wearing a watch on each wrist, they would tick out of sync.
Detection of the waves was the result of a decades-long project involving thousands of scientists around the world. One of the primary experiments is set up at Hanford, using L-shaped tubes with each arm being 2.5 miles long. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory can detect miniscule waves, which then are confirmed through a similar experiment in Louisiana. Driggers works on the interferometer at Hanford, while Messick contributed to the project through data analysis at Penn State.
The discovery of gravitational waves opens a new field of astronomy, and physicist David Reitze said, “For the next 50 years, this is going to be a really exciting field.” Eventually, a better of understanding of the universe’s origins, black holes, dark matter, and celestial objects is expected to be revealed.
As mentioned, this stuff is too complicated for most of us, but it points out the need for scientific exploration. The universe remains a vast expanse of unanswered questions that pique human curiosity and lead to a clearer picture of our own world and worlds beyond. Funding for the LIGO project is provided by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that supports non-medical scientific fields. President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget included an 11 percent reduction in funding for the NSF; Congress trimmed that reduction, but still declined to fund the agency at previous levels.
Meanwhile, Driggers and Messick continue work that has expanded human knowledge, providing a little bit of a Clark County connection to how we perceive the universe.