Gravitational Waves: Beyond the Science

A visualization of the gravitational waves created by two black holes, as detected by LIGO.

On February 11th, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) confirmed the existence of gravitational waves, a concept proposed (and later denied and proposed again) by Albert Einstein as a part of his Theory of Relativity. Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time that can be caused by a variety of cosmic occurrences, in this case from the merging of two black holes. The wave detected by LIGO was detected as a minute disturbance, recorded to be at the magnitude of 1/1000 the diameter of a proton. The disturbance was also recorded as a sound, at about the pitch of middle C.

Though the very idea of such a phenomenon is fascinating, there are far deeper implications that stretch beyond what meets the eye, both for scientists and the rest of us.  To consider those greater implications, we must consider the scientific framework in which this discovery was made.

One of the most elusive concepts for physicists is the idea of unification between the four fundamental forces in physics. These forces are known as the strong force (which operates on the atomic scale, holding the nucleus of an atom together), the weak force (the cause of radioactive decay), the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. All have distinct, but increasingly overlapping properties, leading scientists to believe that in the early universe all these forces were combined as one, and that potentially they could be described in similar manners. However, the two theories that most holistically describe the universe, the Theory of Relativity (describing gravity and space-time) and Quantum Mechanics (describing physics on an atomic level), contradict each other. In many ways, gravitational waves put together some pieces of this puzzle.

The discovery of gravitational waves means not only that gravitational attraction functions in forms comparable to those of electromagnetic attraction, but that gravity can also travel as a wave, similar to the way light or sound does. This revelation brings us closer to the concept of an elegant and unified universe, one in which the various forces of physics operate in similar ways. In other words, we have unveiled another small part of the greater design of the universe, a design that more and more seems to be cohesive and unified.

Such a design has implications beyond the concerns of scientists. If indeed the various forces that govern our physical world – from the scale of an atom to the space-time of the cosmos – operate in a unified manner, not only would that have a profound effect on other academic fields such as philosophy and theology, but on our individual relationships with the natural universe and each other as well. If there is some greater cohesiveness in the universe, what does that mean for us as humans? Are we an anomaly or blemish on that great design, or the intentional product of it? We may never find conclusive answers to those questions through science, but I do believe that what science teaches us gives us the tools to contemplate those questions in whatever way makes sense for each of us. Gravitational waves fit one more piece into a puzzle that seems to simplify even as it grows more complex. This gives us an opportunity to consider and reevaluate some of our most deeply held beliefs as to the nature of the universe, if we open ourselves up to be changed by scientific theory.

Beyond those larger questions, such universality asks us to gain a greater appreciation of the beauty of our universe, if nothing else. The fact that gravity – a force caused by the mass of an object, the attractive force that keeps our feet on the ground – can travel in a way comparable to light, or radio waves, or even a wave on a beach, is a beautiful concept. Poets and writers often marvel at the beauty of nature as it manifests itself in the nature we can observe with our own eyes, but isn’t the beauty of this cohesiveness worth our attention as well? And if the souls of writers and minds of philosophers have been changed by a seemingly endless ocean or night sky, what would it mean to attempt and internalize a unified physical universe?

The scientific community is excited by this discovery, but there are many reasons for the rest of the world to be exhilarated as well. One step closer to a more elegant universe, we can see a greater beauty in the fall of our step as we walk on our earth, or the sunbeams that stretch across the vacuum of space to give us a sunrise. And perhaps, if we allow ourselves to become vulnerable to consider the full implications of what science can reveal, on personal terms, we can find a greater sense of meaning as well.

(Image courtesy of