A telescope at the South Pole recently captured the world’s first“image” of a gravitational wave in space. The news seized the popular imagination and lit the Internet on fire. Yet few of us truly grasp what it was that was discovered, much less its implications for humanity. In search of a better understanding, we caught up with several leading scientists across the globe.
“This is changer of game,” raved Vyacheslav Sverdlov-Yerdmolov, of the Institute for Strategic Cosmology in Omsk. “There is Hubble, there is dark energy, there is this, these only. In cosmology, can be nothing more splendid. I hear news, I weep like infant.”
Pressed to explain a gravitational wave in layman’s terms, Sverdlov-Yerdmolov compared it to a more familiar sort of wave.
“Think of ripple in Irtysh, ripple in Ob. OK? Drop pebble in each, pebble is same. Ripple is same. Wait. Now, drop pebble from far bank. Is not same. In Ob ripples kaput, for Ob like borscht, no good, forget it: ripples is zero. But in Irtysh is how many? Ah! In Irtysh ripples now four, six, eleven, for Irtysh pure like skin of maiden. Now, we know cosmos is Irtysh.”
Having no experience with either river, we struggled to wrap our minds around this. Yet British expert Cyril Bristley-Bockelthwaite, of the University of East Pudding, backed up his colleague while attributing even greater importance to the new finding.
“Forget Hubble. This is Copernicus, this is Darwin. This is one of those gigantic doors that’s been shut for all time, and now it’s been absolutely blasted open, and what’s on the other side is just bloody overwhelming.”
Bristley-Bockelthwaite suggested a different way to visualize the emerging picture of the cosmos.
“Look, up till now we’ve thought of the space-time fabric as something like a tweed, or a gabardine. Well, the new result turns all that on its head. What we’re dealing with is something much more like a chiffon, or really, to get just a bit more technical, more of a crepe-de-chine, or one of the heavier pongees. The best way to get a handle on this is to picture that precise moment when the noils and baves separate during the reeling. Freeze it right there, and you’ve got a picture of the universe at a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old. It really is that simple.”
But according to some, such as Jeanne-Marie-Frédérique de l’Haute-Légume of France’s Centre de la Physique Supérieure, the truly exciting part of the news is its wider implications – not for our own universe, but for what lies beyond.
“It changes literally every facet of human existence,” said Ms. Haute-Légume, who added that she has named her newborn daughter “Bicep-Deux,” after the telescope behind the new discovery. “When first I heard, I gathered my friends and family immediately. We sold our houses, everyone. There are possibilities open to us, today, that yesterday were dreams. No, not dreams, not even.”
When we asked for examples, Ms. Haute-Légume instead proposed another vivid metaphor.
“What this tells us? Is that universes essentially are just plastic bags from the supermarket. They are cheap, they are disposable, yes, they are sometimes difficult to open. And what becomes of them? They arrive always in the middle of the ocean, to drift in circles for all time.”
As for gravity, “its role should be obvious upon the slightest thought. Gravity of course is the supermarket cashier – though you must imagine one who is young, who is clumsy, who is perhaps a bit distracted by the pretty girl in the next line. This is what we mean when we speak about Lorentz invariance.”
Though Ms. Haute-Légume’s enthusiasm seems to be the norm, not every cosmologist has jumped on board with the latest findings. Among the most outspoken skeptics is T. Rust Head, director of the PELVIS-18 project, a competitor to BICEP2.
“Listen, as we used to say, one shit-fly does not a manure pilemake,” said Mr. Head by phone, characterizing his opponents’ inflation theory as “airy-fairy mumble-mouthed gobbledygook.” He went on to explain his own alternative theory, which he has spent some twenty years developing, by way of reference to a classic film.
“Well, it’s partial nucleation – that’s the technical term – but I like to call it the Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ognisospetto model. If you’ve seen the movie, and I hope to holy hell you have, you ain’t likely to forget that opening scene. He kills his girlfriend, right? Just cuts her to pieces, does it in cold f______ blood, leaves all these clues on purpose, and then you spend the rest of the goddamned movie trying to figure out why.”
Mr. Head went on to detail what the “bubble boys” – his term for proponents of inflation – have overlooked in their rush to rewrite cosmic history.
“Think about it. Just f______ think about it for two seconds. You’re the Ispettore, right, you’re the Big Bang, you’re leaving this trail of evidence a mile long and it’s about as useful as tits on a boar hog. Do you know the chances that this kind of signature survives a goddamned inflationary event? It’s exactly the chances of the Kansas City Athletics winning the pennant in ’67, all right? It’s the chances of picking six balls off a Brazilian snooker table and having them all turn up the same color. See? What you’ve got here is a bunch of damn cattle looking at each other’s rear ends and calling ‘em the moon.”
Though the BICEP2 team still has work to do to corroborate its findings and silence its critics, one thing is clear: cosmology just got a lot more interesting. And for some, that’s enough to inspire a faith that borders on the religious.
“We have seen God,” said Cornell’s Xizhao Xu recently, his cheeks still flushed from the excitement. “And God speaks in linearized Einstein field equations.”