The discovery of gravitational waves by a pair of detection devices in the United States was major news in the field of astronomy. Originally proposed by Albert Einstein in his theory of relativity, the existence of gravitational waves was confirmed by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory when it detected tremors caused by the collision of two black holes in a distant galaxy. LIGO is a major project of CalTech, M.I.T. and the National Science Foundation. Over $1 billion has been spent on the search since it began decades ago. This fall LIGO unveiled more sophisticated detection technology that helped lead to this most recent discovery.
For astronomers, the detection of gravitational waves marks the official birth of a new field of study. “Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the universe,” said Stephen Hawking. One billion dollars may seem like a steep price to pay for what, at the moment, is mostly theoretical knowledge. Astronomers engaged in this work are sometimes asked, “Wouldn’t this money be better spent elsewhere?” A helpful answer is provided by Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit brother who is the director of the Vatican Observatory, where news of the detection of gravitational waves was greeted with great excitement. Astronomy, he explains, “is something every human being alive can take pride in.” Everyone can look up at the stars and marvel at the planets. Astronomy can bring people together and give scientists a better understanding of the working of the universe. “Science is where I get to spend time with the Creator,” Brother Consolmagno once said. Seen as a great human undertaking, one that can unite scientists around the world, believers or not, astronomy becomes a pursuit very much worth our time, our money and our imagination.