Making Waves

UpdatesPosted by C. John Mon, February 15, 2016 22:16:22

This week, on Thursday, I shattered Swedish social conventions and started a conversation with a total stranger on a bus. Hence the title? Perhaps, but other waves were the focus of my attention and the attempted bus conversation.

My area of science is focused on the intricacies of small molecules in living cells, however, I sometimes look up to the “Big Science” going on around. And with my renewed interest in SF, I find myself drawn to important events especially in astronomy. Last week there was an announcement that some commentators (scientists not journalists!) have said is as big as the discovery of the Higgs Boson or DNA. The last statement shows it was a physicist rather than a biochemist speaking. Watson and Crick only discovered the structure of DNA, not its existence.

My newsfeed had alerted me to the fact that something big about the possible detection of gravitational waves was going to come on Thursday. But my story begins on the commuter bus on Wednesday.

When I get on the bus I usually have to stand. At the next stop most of the passengers disgorge and I go and find a seat for the rest of the journey. On Wednesday I sat behind somebody who is working hard on his laptop. Due to the positioning of the seats I was perched above him and could clearly see the screen. In contrast the usual Excel spread sheet or Word document that my fellow passengers wrestle with on the way to work, this was a Powerpoint presentation relating to aspects of astronomy. It looked really interesting—but of course, you would never break out of your own little world and cross the gulf greater than intergalactic space to another human being. So I didn’t.

Thursday was a repeat of the previous day. And again I found myself behind the astronomer. This time on the screen were slides relating to gravitational waves and I remembered the announcement that should come on this day. Something in my gut was telling me to use this announcement to open a conversation. Nonetheless, the journey was half completed before I launched forth in Swedish, excusing myself. He wasn’t comfortable in Swedish and we switched to English, which suited me fine.

I found myself in an enthusiastic conversation about the significance of the waves (the final proof of one of the predictions of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity) and the likely possibility that the announcement would be significant. My astronomer was working on gamma radiation from black holes and black holes—or the collision thereof—were the likely source of the gravitational waves. So a better person to talk to about this, I could not find. And he had insider hints that this really was going to be the big one and not the damp squib that happened last year with the gravitational waves and Big Bang (see postscript).

So on Thursday two momentous events occurred. The final observation of gravitational waves, sealing General Relativity and a conversation between two strangers on a Swedish bus.

P.S. I have long been mulling on a story tentatively titled “The Beginning of Everything” and now perhaps there is a validated method to take the steps back to the Big Bang via gravitational waves. This was a promise that had been made and broken in the previous year A story that metaphorically and literally had turned to dust when the observations were discovered to be an artifact of galactic dust and not gravitational waves from the Big Bang.