Friday, 12 February 2016

Gravity Waves

It was announced yesterday that gravity waves had finally been detected.  This surprised me since I understood them to have been picked up in 1969, but presumably that was a false alarm.  

This reminds me of the "detections" of planets in the 61 Cygni and Barnard's Star systems which occurred about the same time which turned out to be the telescope lenses getting polished and put back wonky. Nonetheless it may be the real deal this time.

One of the surprising things about the coverage in the media was that someone said that even the simplified version was hard to follow.  This puzzled me.

Just briefly, the "chirp" detected by LIGO, a pair of detectors in North America, seems to have been the result of two black holes, each thirty times the mass of the Sun, colliding with each other at half the speed of light a billion light years away. The conversion to sound I heard, which was also speeded up, reminded me of two billiard balls bouncing off each other.  Bearing in mind that space and time are warped by mass, massive objects make dimples in space like the feet of pond skaters or other small objects floating on still water. If two such objects collided, ripples would result and those ripples are gravity waves. Objects which are in the path of gravity waves will shrink and stretch very, very slightly, but this is hard to detect because rulers, that is measuring devices, of most kinds will also shrink and stretch go the same extent, so they're hard to measure. LIGO is the most sensitive measuring device humans have ever made and is affected by such things as logging many kilometres away and cars bumping along nearby roads, so they are in remote areas and there are two because this allows errors to be cancelled out. It was expected that the waves, when first detected, would be hard to pick up against the hubbub of everything else which was going on at the same time, but it turns out to have been really clear.  They use a split laser, and I am going to take a guess here that they use interferometry although I don't know. They are V shaped devices several kilometres long.  Here's one arm of the Hanford LIGO:
By Umptanum - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gravity waves are interesting for several reasons. One is that they were predicted to exist by Einstein, so they confirm further the theory of general relativity. Another is that almost all astronomy has been carried out using electromagnetic radiation up until now, that is, the likes of radio waves, X-rays and light, although neutrinos and various types of cosmic rays have also been used.  Unlike electromagnetic radiation, gravity waves can get through anything, so the dark dust clouds which, for instance, make it impossible to see anything on the other side of the Milky Way or beyond that to the edge of the observable Universe, will not be a problem. Also, it will be possible to see things which happened !any aeons ago soon after the supposed Big Bang happened.  Also, just as there are different radio frequencies and colours of light, there may also be a range of gravity wave frequencies. However, really good gravity wave detectors would have to be built in space where they can be huge and there will be less interference from stuff happening on Earth, although there are plans to build a few more on this planet first.

All that seems quite simple to me, but apparently not to other people, and this is where my problem emerges. Although I am unemployable for reasons I don't understand but appear to involve getting far enough in the application process to get an interview and may involve my tendency to spread myself too thin, I have no trouble getting all this and I do have trouble understanding why other people don't get it so easily. I rejected the notion of intelligence long ago because it seemed elitist.  In any case it does seem to me that spending enough time concentrating on something will lead go most people understanding it, or having it explained in the right way will and so on.  The world of thinking is not plagued by the same kind of cantankerousness and resistance as the physical world is, so there is nothing similar to dexterity or physical strength in it which makes things in some way ultimately and intractably hard to understand.  Consequently, when someone doesn't grasp something like this, I see the issue to be just that they haven't spent enough time or energy on trying to. This kind of thing does apply to me sometimes in the world of intellect. For instance, I simply can't be bothered to put in the work required to discover how sports or Gadhlig work, and so I don't. If I was interested enough or it was for some other reason important to me to get to grips with them,  I would do so. 

By Olympics_2012_Women's_75kg_Weightlifting_(2).jpg: Simon Qderivative work: Materialscientist - This file was derived from  Olympics 2012 Women's 75kg Weightlifting (2).jpg:, CC BY 2.0,

On the other hand, I am never going to be strong enough to lift a seventy-five kilo weight over my head or run 100 metres faster than Usain Bolt. Those are different kinds of problems that are intractable to almost anyone.  Knitting, for me, also falls into that category.
This may of course merely be due to the fact that I don't recognise my own strengths and weaknesses.   However, it's also substantially to do with the time I've spent doing particular things which are unusual, and the age at which I did them has made them second nature to me.  It may also be that, given that I don't know my strengths and weaknesses, I don't really understand it at all but only think I do.  This is the problem with being isolated from an academic community, and it also suggests that the idea of some kind of superhuman genius working or thinking in isolation is incoherent.

There is nothing wrong with concentrating on other things than the likes of astronomy, theoretical physics, philosophy, comparative linguistics and so forth.  Being able to do other things is very useful and it is in fact one reason I decided to become a herbalist.  I wanted to be able to do something practical and useful.  However, it's also a little disturbing that people can't seem to understand something as simple as General Relativity.  It's not like quantum mechanics, which most people who kind of understand it say that if you think you understand it you probably don't.  General Relativity can be summed up quite straightforwardly as "Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve," as John Archibald Wheeler, who worked with Einstein, put it.  These things have a kudos to them which makes them seem special or intellectual, like rocket science, which is again not really that hard.  

Brain surgery, on the other hand, really is hard because it involves fine motor skills.  I made a model of the human brain about as detailed as the above picture when I was nine, including the sulci and gyri, i.e. the crevices and bumps, which was immediately thrown away by my teacher at the time of course, but that's not the point.  I have some cognisance of the anatomy of the human brain, meaning that in theory I might know which bits of an exposed brain in front of me do what, but actually cutting into one with a scalpel or whatever is of an order of difficulty akin to the dizzy heights of knitting.
There is also such a thing as emotional intelligence.  I don't know whether that applies to me or not for the usual reasons.

Cutting through all that thicket of overthinking though, I am confronted with at least the possibility that I may have an aptitude for understanding gravity waves or whatever, and that other people tend to lack that aptitude.  I find that though very worrying, because it might mean, for example, that there is something out there vital to the survival of the human race which the general population really can't understand sufficiently to take into consideration or take action to maximise the chance that we will in fact be able to continue to exist.  It's a fact that gravity waves are dead easy for me to comprehend, but it's also a fact that people not comprehending gravity waves is about as hard for me to comprehend as it seems to be for them to grasp the original concept.  If this is true, and I would also want to point out that just as learning disability is not a character flaw, intelligence of the kind I am often seen as having is not a virtue either - apart from anything else it probably stops me from being gainfully employed, but if it is true, it makes me feel frightened and lonely.  It would mean that there would be a heck of a lot of stuff I couldn't share with anyone, for example, and that I would have great difficulty making myself understood.

Therefore, I am highly motivated to find a way to convince myself that this is either untrue or doesn't matter.  All of that stuff, to me, is more important than the apparently important scientific discovery I've been talking about.

I just really hope I'm stupid or ignorant, and those can be good things to be.