Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Collide and conquer

I was sitting in the car with my teenage son yesterday and we were listening to someone on the radio talking about the announcement from scientists at the LIGO detector this week. In it they were discussing the incredible detection of both visible and gravitational waves from a neutron star collision, in which the flash of the smash was seen via telescopes at exactly the same time as a gravitational wave passed through our planet, distorting space-time under our very feet. I noticed that he (my Son) was fiddling with his phone and not really paying attention, I asked if he was impressed at this detection but he said that he wasn't very interested in it and didn't really understand what was being said. I can understand his frustration, it's unlikely that many people really understood the magnitude of this feat nor the amount of skill, dedication and hard-work required to achieve it. 

I took some time to try and break it down for him, explaining what happens to stars as they grow old and run out of fuel, how gravity causes them to collapse and become super dense and how even a teaspoon of matter from such a star would weigh millions of tons. Then I asked him to imagine what it would be like for two of these super-heavy monsters to smash into each other, creating a black-hole and completely obliterating themselves causing ripples in the very fabric of space-time itself, and, how unlikely it was that we would be able to see all of this from Earth and detect the minute distortion at exactly the same time as seeing the explosion through various telescopes, demonstrating that gravity travels at the same speed as light. Then to cap it all, to think about the fact that all this mayhem was actually going on over 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed our planet and before Human beings had even evolved on the savannas of Africa, ergo, it's amazing what we can achieve and learn when we just collaborate.

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