How great was yesterday's announcement of the observation of gravitational waves? We physicists knew there was an ardent search for what Einstein predicted a century ago, and there were rumblings last fall about a possible detection. Learning of the news yesterday from the LIGO group made me proud to be a scientist. I'm not an astrophysicist, and my research into the sports world certainly doesn't touch on anything like black holes merging together. But like so many physicists, I studied general relativity in graduate school and have enough familiarity with the field to know how special yesterday's announcement was. I am tickled to see something I studied many years ago now become part of observational science. A nice read on the science behind yesterday's announcement may be found here.
How great is it to be a scientist? It's wonderful! I've had so many chills-on-the-spine moments in my life as I've learned about the natural world. Any student of mine will recall a class where we were about to derive a famous result and I said something like, "Get ready to feel a chill run up your spine!" As great as it is to learn and understand work done by those who came before us, it's an even bigger thrill to discover something new. That "something new" doesn't have to be a discovery that gets you a call from Stockholm in a future October. Learn how to make a car run more efficiently than today's most efficient cars. Add a nugget of information to what's already known about designing a building to resist damage from earthquakes. Gain insight into how a species of ants behaves when threatened by a predator. I'm now grateful to those who developed technologies for plates and screws that assist in mending broken bones. In my own work, I've gotten tingles on my spine as I discovered something new about how soccer balls move through the air and when I learned how to tease out what's important for winning Tour de France stages.
How great is it to be writing about science on Darwin Day? Luminaries like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein helped establish science as how we come closest to truth in the natural world. It matters not what we were told as children; it matters not what we were told in school; it matters not what our peers told us. Even if some or most of what we've been told in the past is true, the point is that we need not take seriously claims that are not supported by data and evidence. And you know what's great about that idea? Allow me to use a bigger font.
Anyone can be a scientist and investigate the natural world.
How great is that idea? If you are of the opinion that gravitational waves don't exist, make an effort to prove your opinion. If you show that Einstein was wrong on this and that yesterday's announcement was in error, and you have data and evidence on your side such that the physics community comes around to your way of thinking, expect a call from Stockholm someday. As much as teachers come across as authority figures, and it is immensely valuable to teach students what has come to be thought of as true, there are no authority figures in science. Darwin may seem like the ultimate authority figure, but you don't have to take evolution to be fact simply because someone tells you it's true. Read about all the research that has been done to establish evolution as true as gravity. Investigate the natural world yourself and put Darwin's ideas to the test. If you have problems with what scientists have told us for the past quarter century about our climate, investigate Earth's climate yourself. Scepticism and scrutiny are needed for good science. Keep questioning until data and evidence point you in the direction of truth. And definitely don't fill voids in our knowledge with whatever comforts you or might seem like good ideas. Test your hypotheses and never be afraid of being wrong. We can learn a lot from being wrong!
How great is it to be alive and be doing science? It's a wondrous feeling!