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How “You’re Out of Your Mind!” Won a Nobel Prize  

By Shlomo Maital


      Cultivate wild ideas!   This is a proven path for changing the world, and, perhaps, for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

       Profs. Weiss, Barish and Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel for Physics. They won it for empirically demonstrating the existence of “gravity waves”, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. According to The New York Times:

    These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Ron Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors.

In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington. Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.   The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”

   The breakthrough research combined a wild idea (empirically measuring gravity waves) with a feet-on-the-ground project to measure them.  The most advanced version of LIGO Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.

   Barish knew how to manage Big Science projects, like LIGO; Weiss and Thorne had the wild idea of measuring tiny tiny waves, an “out of your mind” idea.  And the National Science Foundation provided the needed resources. Presto – Nobel.

   Weiss and Thorne are MIT professors; Barish is from Caltech.


It’s Now a Fact!  There WAS a Big Bang!

By Shlomo  Maital      

            Big Bang

It is not often that a scientific discovery in astronomy hits the New York Times front pages.  “Seeing back to the start of it all” (Tuesday March 18) reports that, “reaching back across 13.8 billion years..with telescopes at the South Pole, a team..led by John M. Kovac (Harvard-Smithsonian) detected …gravitational waves, the signature of a universe being wrenched violently apart when it was roughly a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second old.”

   The new finding that detected gravitational waves confirms a theory known as “inflation”,  the theory that the expansion of space in the early universe happened at a rate much faster than the speed of light.   Following the inflationary period, the universe continued to expand, but at a slower rate.  “Inflation” is a theory expounded first by Dr. Alan Guth at Stanford, late at night in 1979.  It was a “eureka” moment.  “Spectacular realization!” Guth wrote then.   Guth broke the physics rule, that the speed of light is an upper limit.  What if it isn’t?  he asked. And that led to a conceptual breakthrough, that on Monday, was confirmed. 

   The radio telescopes were sited at the South Pole, because the atmosphere is thinner there and there is far less background ‘noise’ to interfere. 

    How did human life happen?  In one sentence:  the Big Bang scattered hydrogen molecules, which clumped into stars, which exploded, scattering matter (formed in the belly of stars by fusing hydrogen atoms into heavier matter) which clumped into planets, and in soupy seas chemicals formed ribonucleic acid, then DNA, and a reptile that evolved from a single-cell creature went onto land and learned to breath air…and when a huge asteroid hit the earth and the resulting dust cloud obscured the sun, the cold-blooded dinosaurs all died, leaving the world to the mammals..and humans.  

    How arrogant are we humans?  The Creator took 13.8 billion years to shape the universe as it is today.  If those 13.8 b. years were represented as one year, 365 days,  human life has existed for only the last 14 seconds of December 31,  or, just about 50,000 years.  So people – you are just the early early stage of an experiment, and alas, it just doesn’t seem to be working too well. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital