Scientists in Washington State and Louisiana have recently announced that a century of effort and productivity has finally borne fruit. They’ve discovered concrete evidence of the existence of gravitational waves. For the uninitiated 99% of us, these relate to certain aspects surrounding how the cosmos behaves. We can now prove one aspect of what Einstein predicted a hundred years ago regarding our universe.
Essentially, scientists have suggested that perhaps they’re the result of two black holes merging. See here if you’re interested in finding out more about the science. We’re not qualified to say more.
Can you hear the world clapping?
This discovery has been touted by luminaries such as the NY Times as a great success for science. After all, this is proof of Einstein’s theory and modern tools, ones which he had thought impossible, are to thank.
The apparatus involves enormous 4 kilometre long L-shaped mirrors. We’re talking here about gigantic scientific equipment, created in order to measure aspects of our universe which are so far off, we can only get an inkling of the hint of an idea about what’s out there.
It’s a great achievement, involving, as it does, collaboration between governments, scientific communities and private bodies. These diverse groups have had to earn a measure of productivity in their actions in order to realise these findings.
(Apparently, we were pretty certain these gravitational waves existed, even without the proof, but whisper that quietly.) The resulting success has been cheered the world over, much like the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle.
Does it make me more productive?
What it all comes down to is that two black holes, which we’ll never be able to see, have merged to create a new entity, which we’ll also never be able to see. In doing so, they’ve realised an impact which is so tiny that Einstein had thought it impossible to quantifiably measure.
Like the emotion felt by many once the Hadron Collider’s Higgs-Boson experiment’s hype had died down, the lingering feeling is one of ‘who cares?’
Can I go shopping with this discovery? Is it making my life easier? Does it make me more productive either at work or at home? The answer to all these questions, for the foreseeable future, is no
Does it perhaps give me a new toy to play with and or new methods with which to advance myself? No
Perhaps it makes something which we all need, water, food, shelter, cheaper or more readily available energy sources? Again, for the foreseeable future, no.
What on earth (or rather, what in space) is the point of all this effort and expense?
‘It’s academic’: Measuring the impact
In a drive for relevancy, productivity and financing, modern universities have centred themselves around their links to the business world. In today’s financial environment, university ventures get spun off as separate companies and roam wild in the world. Businesses sponsor university departments who then teach practical, focused courses which the students can use in their everyday lives.
In today’s economy, studies which were once an exercise of the brain with little to no practical application have become something which we can all benefit from in some way, shape or form. Perhaps one day we’ll stop using the term ‘it’s academic‘ to mean an ambiguous answer to a question which is fundamentally irrelevant because it has no impact whatsoever.
One can’t help feeling that at some point in our recent past, intellectuals had lost their reason for being. It seems that they took a wrong turn when the fruits of their labours were cared about by very few and understood by even fewer. Perhaps it harks back to 400 plus years ago when universities were attended by a minority of the upper class elite, let alone a minority of the population as a whole.
Once upon a time subjects like rhetoric were the key learning areas and practicality or economy were distant thoughts. No wonder we wandered into studying theories whose output we can never benefit from.
With the restrictions in university funding, that old reality has declined. In its place is one of funding, sponsorship and innovative FTSE 250 companies. Boffins with Phd’s have moved into the private sector to help business analyse the vast reams of data which are produced from their apps and the world of intelligence has begun to produce an output which tangibly improves our lives.
Productivity at an end?
Why then, are we still throwing technology at space in a purely academic quest. Our resources in this world are few and often highly exhaustible. Our efforts and capacities are limited. This is why we need to improve productivity all the time. However we measure it, this is what counts, this is our bottom line, whether that’s minutes, hours, budgets or GDP.
If we can’t say ‘this discovery will make water more available in third world countries’ or ‘this finding will reduce deforestation of the rainforests’, we shouldn’t be doing it. If you can’t go shopping with the output of so much effort and investment, why bother? it’s not exactly turning disused garbage into oil, is it?
Of course, we should all dream and strive for more. However, whether you have the attitude that it’s winning that counts, or that it’s the trying which matters, you wouldn’t encourage your kids to completely lose sight of any end goal whatsoever, because that would be both fruitless and insane. Trying is not its own goal, it is a means and not an end in and of itself.
Why then are should we care about the gravitational wave, what does it give us? I could give you an answer, but really, it’s academic.