If you build it…
Author: Janna Levin
The usual superlatives fail. Even extra tremendous superlatives don’t do the topic justice. Theoretically, gravitational waves are everywhere, generated by actions as simple as the Earth’s revolution around the Sun. They’re just so vanishingly weak that Einstein – the man who first convinced the world that they exist – thought they would forever be undetectable. But few things motivate an experimental physicist more than the claim that something is impossible. What if one searches for the most energetic gravitational events since the big bang? Could such an event produce enough gravitational radiation that it just might be barely detectable? In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space, theoretical cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin tells how scientists have been trying to answer this question, attempting to detect the undetectable.
Over the past century, the search for theoretically tantalizing entities, like the Higgs boson or the various flavors of quarks, has resulted in the building of incredibly complicated – and costly – laboratories around the world. Although not nearly as expensive as the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is a similar type of “Big Science” project that began its initial operations in 2002 in a cooperative effort by physicists at Cal Tech and MIT. Consisting of two identical observatories in Hanford, Washington and Livingston, Louisiana, LIGO’s four kilometer vacuum tubes were configured to detect the slight perturbations in space-time that are expected when a gravitational wave passes through the Earth’s neighborhood.