on the LIGO experiment

Usually, popular science “excitement” over scientific results tends to be overdone. A day of reflection on the publication of the gravitational waves detection (paper here) leads me to believe that this is really worthy of excitement, much more so than the ballyhooed Higgs boson detection a few years ago. Both are important, of course.

The reason is subtly put by the inimitable Brian Greene, near the end of the video.

It isn’t that we understood something new (the theory has been postulated for a century), or that we found something unexpected (the experiment, or in any case experiments like it, have been ongoing for a while). No one doubted confirmation of gravitational waves. It was a matter of time.

But we have discovered something new, and it is the thing that we observed with this new instrument. In other words, the first direct observation of gravitational waves is less interesting than the first direct observation of something via gravitational waves. It is that we now have engineered an instrument that can detect one of the only two known forces of nature with long-range effect, the other being the electro-magnetic force. It is at the same time the opening of a major new avenue for observation as well as the opening of the final avenue for observations of this kind (within current theory, of course). So this brings physics back from the indulgent reverie of metaphysics (string theory, cough) to the realm of the observable, and therefore science. The last few times instrumentation advanced, physics took great leaps forward toward well grounded theories. This time should be no different.

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