After a Billion Years…

The anticipation has been building the last few days that a big announcement would be made today, and sure enough it came this morning. Gravitational waves have been detected for the first time, the result of two black holes colliding and merging a billion years ago. Einstein predicted their existence a hundred years ago when he published his General Theory of Relativity (1915), and now we know they exist.

Numerical simulations of the gravitational waves emitted by the inspiral and merger of two black holes. The colored contours around each black hole represent the amplitude of the gravitational radiation; the blue lines represent the orbits of the black holes and the green arrows represent their spins.
Numerical simulations of the gravitational waves emitted by the inspiral and merger of two black holes. From Physics (Feb 11, 2016).

It’s big news, one of the biggest that the scientific community could possibly make! You can read about it in any news website, for example:

The New York Times (with an excellent 4-minute video),

The Guardian (with more excellent videos and diagrams)

The Washington Post,

BBC News (maybe best coverage of all).

The detection of gravitational waves allows us to witness the effects of the biggest ‘monsters’ in the universe, black holes. And indeed, the gravitational waves announced today were the result of the collision of two black holes a billion years ago! Future experiments, described in some of the coverage above, will allow us to peer into the first trillionth of a second of the Big Bang itself! I hope I live long enough to witness some of these exciting developments.

Many things in science can be observed directly or reproduced in a laboratory. But the most extreme phenomena in science can only be observed indirectly. By extreme I mean the most minute, as in the realm of fundamental particles; and the most remote in the big scale of the universe. Gravitational waves are almost unique, because they are extreme in both senses: they relate to the biggest events in the cosmic scale of the universe, and yet they, like particles, can only be detected by their minute influence on the most sensitive measurements possible! I find the whole thing simply astonishing. This is a red-letter day for science – physics and cosmology specifically.

Why am I so excited about this? First, because I do care about science. I worked in science for several years before switching to theology, which is a science of a different sort than what I was pursuing previously. But more important, I see in today’s announcement a methodology that is not very different from the way theology works.

The Big Bang happened 14 billion years ago, so we can never observe it directly, no matter how far into the cosmos our telescopes take us (and remember, the farthest out into space we look the furthest back in time we are actually seeing, since what we see depends on how long light takes to reach us). But we can see the results of the Big Bang in the expansion of the universe and in something called the Microwave Background which permeates the entire universe and is the fingerprint of that initial explosion. So also gravitational waves: they are the fingerprint of the most violent events and objects in the universe, black holes especially. Black-hole-modelAnd of course, we probably will never directly see a black hole – contrary to science fiction movies like Interstellar (2014), which had a fascinating, but highly speculative, story line involving a black hole. But we can see the effects of black holes on space-time and gravitational waves.

In an analogous way, we cannot see God, but we can see evidence of God and of God’s actions. In last Sunday’s sermon on the Sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart”, I referred briefly to the distinction that St. Gregory of Nyssa and Orthodox theology as a whole make between the ‘essence’ and ‘energies’ of God. We cannot see God in his inner core of his being, in his absolute essence; but we can see the energies of God, meaning God’s activities and the results of God’s existence.

Quite frankly, one could almost say without exaggeration that the empirical evidence for God’s existence is stronger than the empirical evidence scientists have for black holes and the Higgs boson and other important pieces of the cosmic puzzle that is continuously falling into place. I don’t doubt for one minute the existence of black holes or the Higgs boson, and I have no doubt that Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best explanation for the variety of life that we see on earth. But most of the important scientific theories and discoveries rely on highly specialized research facilities and sophisticated experiments that often take years to produce results – as was the case with gravitational waves and the Higgs boson. But the evidence for God is almost universal across the entire range of human civilization. One or two scientists can be wrong, but can billions of human beings across 100,000 years all be wrong?

Scientists who deny the existence of God come up with sophisticated and sometimes profound explanations for why there is religion; and although their explanations are meant to destroy the validity of religion and the belief in God, they do contribute important sociological insights into the variety of human beliefs and actually end up reinforcing the validity of this universal aspect of human existence.

So next time someone asks you whether you have any evidence for God, ask that person if he or she knows anything about gravitational waves. It might be a good conversation opener that might bring you and the other person into better mutual understanding.

Something almost theological about this quote from the movie Interstellar.
Something almost theological about this quote from the movie Interstellar.

2 Replies to “After a Billion Years…”

  1. I can count on to get me the science news I need faster than my APS newsfeed or my own sources! If asked a few years ago, I might have told you I was concerned that that LIGO could be a hoax. I’ll apply my skepticism to what they now report, and I could be persuaded that I was wrong. Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, as I see it.

  2. Ah, Greg Hall, the eternal skeptic! And a top-notch scientist from my own past, the three memorable years we worked together in the Chemistry Department of the University of Toronto. Good to hear from you, Greg! I like the challenge of your “extraordinary claims” remark. I take it in the double sense it is undoubtedly meant 🤓

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