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Not With a Bang But a Chirp
Normally, I hesitate to expound on the subject of theoretical astrophysics. I don’t want to give the impression that I am presenting myself as some kind of expert in these matters. I really prefer the term “gifted amateur.”

But let’s not waste time on such distinctions. I’ll let you be the judge. In case you didn’t hear the recent news from deep space, here’s the skinny: 1.3 billion years ago, two black holes in a galaxy far, far away were spinning around each other at the rate of 250 rotations per second. As they spun, gravity waves spiraled out into the universe in every direction at (what else?) the speed of light. The two behemoths’ frantic dance of courtship finally ended in a cataclysmic climax, releasing one last pulse that was equal in its power output to 50 times that of the entire visible universe.

The sex was so good, in fact, that both lovers died. But a new black hole, almost twice the size of both together, was born. Ordinarily, nobody on Earth would have noticed. The usual means of observing the universe — optical, radio, and x-ray telescopes — could not have detected this event. By the time that last wave reached Earth, however, it so happens that scientists had just created a whole different kind of observational device. Instead of looking for stuff, they were ready to listen for it — specifically, for the kind of gravity waves produced over a billion years ago by those two black holes in heat.

Those scientists and engineers weren’t even sure such a thing existed, even though Einstein had predicted that it did. They built LIGO, this 2.5-mile-by-2.5-mile right angle filled with precision gizmos, to see (or rather, hear) if Albert was right. Maybe, just maybe, these ripples in space/time could be discovered at last.

Bingo! Or rather, chirp! No Booms or Ka-blooies or thunderous roars to match the event itself…just this one little musical note. In the key of middle C, they said.

Big deal, you say? Nice goin’ fellas, but what’s a chirp when we can already see the universe bellowing at us? What’s so freakin’ special about this new thing? The answer: it’s special because it is new…a new and unique kind of information available in no other way than this. Furthermore, black holes aren’t the only things that produce gravitational waves. Any mass that moves will do it, and that includes everything in the universe. We are swimming in such waves.

A new kind of data means a whole different take on then universe. Have you ever stood on the roof of your house? It’s different up there, isn’t it? Gives you a different perspective, doesn’t it? You see things you’ve never seen before, you notice relationships you never knew existed, you’re above, beyond, and outside your previous understanding of the world.

So, yeah…it’s a big deal. What the experts can’t tell you, however, is what we will discover from observing these new data. They can’t, of course, because we haven’t discovered it yet. It’s been several months now since that first chirp. So where are the other chirps?

UPDATE: Hi, it’s me, interrupting myself. I wrote the above in February 2016, but never posted it. I was writing right after the LIGO team published its paper about their first big detection from the previous year. There have been (to answer my own question) several noteworthy chirps since then. The first four were also the results of colliding black holes. In October of 2017, however, LIGO and its Italian counterpart Virgo detected something new — the merger of two neutron stars.

Meanwhile, the LIGO team has copped several awards, including a Nobel Prize in Physics. LIGO-India, or INDIGO, is now under construction. Improvements to the original system continue to be made, increasing the sensitivity and scope of future observations. That means more people standing on the roof and enjoying that unique perspective on the universe.

So far, observations have confirmed what scientists had predicted. Einstein’s theory of general relativity got a boost because it had imagined gravity waves in the first place. The data from the black hole collisions proved that those mysterious objects do, in fact, exist. Observations of the neutron merger proved (when taken with data from regular, old-fashioned observations) that gamma rays ands heavy metals are indeed products of such collisions.

I do like that we’re getting confirmations of previous scientific insights. It goes a long way toward chumping out the science deniers, and that’s a good thing in this era of “alternative facts.” When it comes to what I look for as a gifted amateur astrophysicist, however, this is not the ideal outcome. For me to do my best work, there must be new, inexplicable data to contend with — something that utterly dumbfounds the scientific community.

So I’m fine with the chirps, but I want more. A trill, perhaps, or a cheep. A distant hoot would be great, or even a full-on gobble. That might be too much to hope for, but I will take anything that calls for the kind of analysis that requires no data to speak of — much less an understanding of the laws of physics. That’s where I will come in.
Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon