Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Scrolling through Twitter can be a stroll down Information Street, and with a curious mind you never know where you might end up. Tweets from across the globe encourage exploration of links to events unfolding in real time. Lying in bed on a Sunday morning with coffee at hand, smartphone charged and dog snuggling at my feet is one of my life’s great pleasures.

Recently when scrolling through my Twitter feed, I learned that gravitational waves are a thing.  I had heard the announcement of this discovery on the nightly news, but apart from enjoying the rapt expressions on the scientist’s faces, I hadn’t paid much attention.  Then on a lazy Sunday morning a tweet caught my attention:

“Gravitational waves: Science ‘discovery of century’

explained perfectly in one paragraph”

This simple explanation looked enticing so I clicked on an @Independent link where a Reddit user explained gravitational waves as if to a five year old. (Reddit is a social news forum where stories are curated and promoted by its site members.)

“You know how when you throw a rock in a pool, there are ripples? And how if we throw bigger rocks in, they make bigger ripples? Well, a long time ago, a really smart guy named Einstein said that stars and planets and stuff should make ripples in space, and he used some really cool math to explain why he thought that. Lots of people checked the math and agree that he was right. But we’ve never been able to see those ripples before. Now some people built a really sensitive measuring thing that uses lasers to see them, and they just proved that their device works by seeing ripples from a really big splash. So now we know how to see them and we can get better at it, which will help us learn more about space.”

Satisfied with this description I went to close the link when a quote, from a user who was one of the 1,000 LIGO scientists working on the research, jumped off the page!

“Before we started detecting gravitational waves, looking out at the universe was like watching an orchestra without any sound.”


We can actually hear the universe?  It was as if a window had opened and immediately I needed to know more!  I typed ‘gravitational waves’ into my phone’s browser. Believe it or not, my smartphone has considerably more computing power than the Apollo 11 had when sending man to the moon in 1969. In fact the Apollo Guidance Computer had less power than the electronics in some toasters today! @ComputerWeekly

But I digress, in fact I’ve taken a wrong turn (I could do with a GPS tracker right now but more on that later.) So, I continued to navigate the net and learned that 1.3 billion years ago two black holes had rammed violently together and merged to form one gigantic black hole.  Albert Einstein had predicted this event in his 1915 theory of general relativity, where the collision results in converting a portion of the combined black holes’ mass to energy, according to his formula E=mc2.  This energy is emitted as a final strong burst of gravitational waves that continue to ripple for billions of years across the fabric of spacetime.

 @NewYorker journalist Nicola Twilley eloquently describes the event with a sexually charged energy:

“Just over a billion years ago, many millions of galaxies from here, a pair of black holes collided. They had been circling each other for aeons, in a sort of mating dance, gathering pace with each orbit, hurtling closer and closer. By the time they were a few hundred miles apart, they were whipping around at nearly the speed of light, releasing great shudders of gravitational energy. Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole, sixty-two times as heavy as our sun and almost as wide across as the state of Maine. As it smoothed itself out, assuming the shape of a slightly flattened sphere, a few last quivers of energy escaped. Then space and time became silent again.”

The writer goes on to give us a sense of the immensity of time that has passed since the collision took place 1.3 billion light years ago:

“The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape.”

On September 14 last year, the first faint ripples through space were detected by twin towers at The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) located in in the United States 4000 kilometres apart, housing the most sensitive equipment ever made. And someone was listening out for the music! More from Nicola Twilley:

“Marco Drago, a thirty-two-year-old Italian postdoctoral student, was the first person to notice them. He was sitting in front of his computer at the Albert Einstein Institute, in Hannover, Germany, viewing the LIGO data remotely. The waves appeared on his screen as a compressed squiggle, but the most exquisite ears in the universe, attuned to vibrations of less than a trillionth of an inch, would have heard what astronomers call a chirp—a faint whooping from low to high.”

It has been coined ‘The discovery of the century’ and much celebration ensued amongst the LIGO Scientific Collaboration which includes more than 900 scientists worldwide. According to http://www.csiro.au “One of the major components of LIGO was the installation of ultra-high-performance optical mirrors, many of which were coated by researchers from CSIRO.”  I do hope you’ve been paying attention Prime Minister @turnbullmalcolm as your party wields its fiscal axe against our nation’s great scientific institution. #CSIRO #JobCuts (The # symbol in social media is used to tag subjects of interest to users.)

And so when my teenage son retuned from his early morning run, my head being full of science and poetry, I asked what he knew about gravitational waves. He said he was aware of the discovery but hadn’t given it much thought.  I puffed up my pillow to sit up straight and said,

“Well I’ll tell you what I know about it.”

And so I told him what I just told you.

Blah blah blah gravitational waves blah blah blah

But he just shook his head while casting me a look of hopelessness and said,

“But you don’t have any scientific understanding, so how can it be meaningful to try and understand science through metaphor and allegory?

Feeling a little indignant at this unexpected response I replied,

“I may not understand Einstein’s equation but I can grasp the metaphor of the universe as an orchestra”.

He frowned and asked,

Can I read you a quote from Camus?”

Still in his running gear he disappeared into his room and returned with a copy of Albert Camus’ 1942 philosophical essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’ He sat on the end of my bed and flicked through the book to find a passage. The room was quiet, the dog slept on and my son read aloud:

“And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel? Yet all the knowledge on earth will give nothing to assure me that this world is mine…

…you tell me of an invisible planetary system in which electrons gravitate around a nucleus. You explain this world to me with an image.  I realise then that you have been reduced to poetry.

What need had I of so many efforts? The soft lines of these hills and the hands of evening on this troubled heart teach me much more. I have returned to my beginning.”

I thought about this for a while: “What’s the point of even attempting to understand science if you’re not a scientist? What’s the point of employing metaphors or imagery in trying to understand the scientific?  Are touching the ‘gnarled surface’ of the trees and smelling the sweet grass the only true ways of knowing the ‘world is mine,’ and not through the acquisition of ‘all the knowledge on earth?’

Later I queried him,

“Are you saying I shouldn’t even try and understand gravitational waves?”

And he replied,

“You either know the science or you don’t know the science at all. You can know things aesthetically, and you can know things scientifically, but you cannot possibly know one through the lens of the other. Once diluted, science was rendered useless to Camus; he was saying why bother when you can look at the soft hills?”

But for me, the metaphor of likening the sounds of gravitational waves to music has made the science relatable in the realms of listening and feeling – scientists had ‘heard’ the reverberations from two black holes colliding and as one scientist put it:

“It’s like listening to music. You might have the base in the left channel, the snares in the right. What this music will reveal is a set of stories about the universe that can only be heard in the language of gravitational waves; stories that would otherwise be lost in the cosmic noise of the Big Bang.”

I don’t agree with Camus, for it is worth attempting to associate with something greater than ourselves, even if it is only through the use of metaphor and imagery. We don’t have to be versed in theoretical physics, hell, if we can even understand one definition as explained to a five year old, or grasp a metaphor uttered by an ecstatic scientist, then it’s enough to allow us feel a connection to space and thereby make it personal.

Scientific discoveries continue to reverberate in our everyday lives; as @ConversationUK points out, quantum mechanics is the basis of our use of semiconductors in our computers and mobile phones; our trusty GPS trackers are borne of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It is satisfying to make these connections.

Like Camus we can be content to just gaze upon the ‘soft lines of the hills’ and ‘the stars at night’ and leave science to the scientists. Or we may choose to lie back on a sleepy Sunday morning and glean information from the profusion available at our fingertips, to dream away while pondering the orchestral sounds of the universe and, as Camus said, return to our beginnings.

Now teenagers are another mystery altogether, and just as I was finishing writing this, I discovered the following quote copied in my son’s handwriting:

By pleasure drawn from discovery of new truths, the scientist is part poet, and by pleasure drawn from new ways to express old truths, the poet is part scientist. In this sense science and the creative arts are foundationally the same.

~ E.O Wilson, Letters to a Young Scientist

On that note you might want to sit back and listen to this Gravitational Waves music remix by Arthur Jeffes using the actual sounds recorded by LIGO – the music of our universe!



The title of this blog gratefully borrowed from Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, an English new wave/synthpop group.




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