A Whole New Way of Seeing the Sky

The following post was written by Ed Cutler, a Faculty Fellow for the Center.

Rocking the world of physics earlier this week, a team of scientists confirmed that they have directly observed gravitational waves, the so-called ripples in the very fabric of spacetime Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity had predicted a hundred years ago. Because the universe is unmeasurably vast, and events capable of producing detectable gravitational waves are on the order of stars colliding, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) team had to design an impossibly sensitive instrument capable of detecting tiny distortions in spacetime—tininess to the tune of 1/10,000 the width of a single atom.

The faint oscillations LIGO detected were the shock waves of mass converting to pure energy, emanations from a cataclysmic merger of two black holes more than a billion light years removed from earth. Their combined mass, more than sixty times that of our own sun, collided with such violence that the equivalent mass of three of our suns was converted into pure energy in less than a second. Traversing the universe at the speed of light, expanding and contracting the very space through which it passed, the waveform energy radiating from this same collision was detected by LIGO’s super-tuned instrumentation.

As a non-scientist trying to wrap my head around this announcement, I’ve become almost as fascinated by reactions to the announcement—by the question of its significance—as by LIGO’s achievement itself. Few physicists doubted the existence of gravitational waves before LIGO, even if they doubted the ability to design an interference-free way to observe them. In that sense, LIGO is more an evidentiary confirmation of well-founded theory than a discovery of something “new.” Of greater potential significance, scientists agree, is that LIGO’s new eyes and ears will extend human perception where only darkness and silence once reigned, beyond the signal horizon of electromagnetic waves, i.e., beyond light itself.

The potential to roll back the void and chart what happens further out is wonder enough for many, but not all. Comment boards display the expected range of reactions, from anti-science trolling to breathless comparison of LIGO’s discovery with those of Copernicus and Galileo. Yet a recurring and distressing theme tends to settle upon the utility of it all. During a live-chat sponsored by The Guardian, Australian astrophysicist Katie Mack briefly resorted to ALL CAPS when a questioner, “mostly jokingly,” asked “how this news will help her.” “IT GIVES YOU A NEW WINDOW ON THE UNIVERSE,” was Mack’s fairly exasperated reaction, before she collected herself enough to add: “Okay so in all seriousness your day to day life will not change now that astronomers can WATCH BLACK HOLES COLLIDING and study the details of the VERY FABRIC OF REALITY. You can safely ignore it if you want to . . . ”

On this last point I’m not so sure. Ignorance is never safely ignored. This holds as true for academics as the publics they serve. I’ll never be confused for an astrophysicist, but as a professor of literature I’ve encountered the “how does this help me” question enough to appreciate Professor Mack’s frustration. The sheer wonder and beauty of discovery ought to be enough, right? In a perfect world, sure. But what about one mired in perpetual war? One beholden to the competing ideologies born in prior millennia, one in which, a hundred years after Einstein, the savage old ghosts still readily eclipse the majesties of new cosmic understanding? Can our world afford to care about quarks and gravitational waves in the face of global oppression, environmental degradation, uneven development, and the grossly inequitable consumption of planetary resources? Don’t we have colliding black holes so much nearer home to attend to first?

There’s a variation on this theme in the arts. Theodor Adorno is often misquoted as having said, “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” What he actually said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” may seem no more sanguine. But his point wasn’t that poets should stop writing poems given the atrocities of the Holocaust, lest they be thought barbaric. His was a sobering appeal, rather, for recognition that the best and worst features of human development are deeply entangled in one another. The technical precision that can synchronize and stabilize two mirrors set a thousand miles apart in order to measure subatomic positional variances of 1/10,000 the width of an atom rightly inspires awe, yet these same principles of precision also underlie the creation of devastatingly sophisticated weaponry. The progressive idea that advancements in technical understanding and aesthetic appreciation deliver modern culture from irrational barbarity, that acquired knowledge is itself disinterested, this, for Adorno, was the myth that needed exploding after Auschwitz.

I couldn’t help remembering Adorno while reading about LIGO. The irony of so many scientists appealing to disinterested contemplation of the beautiful would not have escaped his notice. Theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss’s essay in The New York Times, “Finding Beauty in the Darkness,” is illustrative. “While the political displays we have been treated to over the past weeks may reflect some of the worst about what it means to be human,” he opines, that miniscule “jiggle, discovered in an exotic physics experiment, reflects the best.” It’s hard to disagree, but our regressive political displays don’t exist in a vacuum, and they are more than a comic foil for the best of what humanity can achieve. One of these same politicians, after all, will shortly inherit the executive privilege of making what are bound to be crude, imprecise judgments about when and how to deploy our state-of-the-art weaponry.

The complicity of universities with the war machine is an old concern and is only indirectly related to my point. That LIGO’s significance is not self-evident, that its value to humanity is very much an open question, is the point. “Critical intelligence cannot be equal to the challenge [of overcoming barbarity] as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation,” Adorno contends. When faced with the question of utility—“what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters”—Krauss’s rejoinder is noble, but finds refuge in the very kind of contemplation Adorno calls out. “People rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony,” Krauss complains. This is not only sadly untrue, but beside the point. I understand his desire to affirm that “science, like art, music and literature has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder.” No doubt it does, but what of it? The appeal to wonder is no more meaningful than the demand for a cash-value estimate, in Adorno’s admittedly jaundiced eyes. Of itself, beauty doesn’t answer the question of how this helps us.

It’s easy to dismiss incurious, utilitarian reactions to a staggering scientific breakthrough as an aesthetic or intellectual failure. That is the second worst—and most self-defeating—response scientists or humanists could have. What’s worse? To stop hunting for sub-atomic particles and caring about poetry, to limit the scope and vision of human inquiry to our perceived necessities. That is the great paradox of the struggle for humanity, a paradox academics can’t resolve, but can only ignore at their peril. The best and worst of humanity always hang in the balance, with each generation, and the task of the arts and sciences is to share and promote vision along with understanding, and to do so as broadly and generously as is humanly possible. If the politicians up on stage indeed reflect the worst of humanity, academics need to ask why, in a country whose universities are the envy of the academic world, we have done so poor a job of nurturing the public intelligence and translating our collective best. If the knowledge we wrestle from the darkness is to hold good, it must resonate and connect. Purpose and meaning are not intrinsic qualities of even the most dazzling breakthroughs in knowledge. Yet the free pursuit and transmission of such knowledge remains vital to fostering the kind of resolve and shared purpose for which the best of our humanity strives.

Photo by: Ute Kraus, Physics education group Kraus, Universität Hildesheim, Space Time Travel, (background image of the milky way: Axel Mellinger), via Wikimedia Commons

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1 Comment

  1. Kristine Hansen says:

    I really liked Ed’s post and want him to know that. But I want to comment on this one sentence: “If the politicians up on stage indeed reflect the worst of humanity, academics need to ask why, in a country whose universities are the envy of the academic world, we have done so poor a job of nurturing the public intelligence and translating our collective best.” I agree that we are facing an election that has many of us shaking in our boots because it looks like an anti-intellectual demagogue with no experience in government and few specific or feasible plans for governing has a good shot at winning the nomination of his party. But I don’t know if the universities can be blamed for the sinking of what we used to call civic discourse to the low it has hit in Trump’s rhetoric and that of his followers. I understand from pundits that most of the voters who declare Trump their favorite have a high school education, so they didn’t have the chance to be educated at the feet of university professors, who, presumably, would have helped them overcome their ignorance. I’m not so sure that US universities are still the envy of the world, either, as public funding for universities declined by 18% from 2008 to 2013. Also, by 2013, according to a recent AAUP report, “Some 76 percent of college and university instructors in the U.S. [fell] into a contingent faculty category”—full-time but non-tenure track, part-time, or graduate student employees. The change in the make-up of university faculties is largely due to the loss of public funding and the misguided belief that universities should function like corporations. Politicians control the funding of public universities. It seems that they may be consciously aiming at creating an ill-educated electorate that doesn’t get the kind of university education we ivory tower types like to fancy we can give to the young people of America. I wish we had world enough and time to “nurture the public intelligence,” but our audience and our opportunities are shrinking rapidly.

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