How gravitational waves show that science is a gateway to beauty and contemplation
Marco Drago, a young physicist in Hanover, Germany, got the news by an automatic email on Sept. 14, 2015. For about half a second, the perpendicular, four-kilometer-long arms at the LIGO experiment’s twin detectors in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., had jiggled back and forth the distance of about one-thousandth the width of a proton. That may not sound exciting to most people, but the scientist knew that the graphs in his inbox suggested a historic discovery. The signal could be due only to gravitational waves—the shrinking and stretching of space—and that was a phenomenon no experiment had ever detected before.
At first Dr. Drago thought his colleagues in the United States must have been testing the instruments, creating an artificial signal. But after giving them a call and finding that the experiment had been operating in its normal mode, he notified everyone on the project and set a thousand hearts racing with the possibility that human beings had, for the very first time, seen a wave in the fabric of space passing through our planet. The next few months were spent painstakingly analyzing the data to make absolutely sure that the event was authentic and that they were interpreting it correctly.
Finally, in February of this year, the LIGO team published the results and announced their discovery to the world. They were able to state conclusively that they had detected the collision of two black holes over a billion light-years away. The amount of energy released from the impact was greater than all the starlight in the observable universe, most of it in the form of gravitational waves. Such ripples in space are generated all the time as massive bodies (including our own planet) accelerate through space, but they are normally so tiny that only the most spectacular cosmic events, like the one captured by the LIGO detectors, can produce anything detectable by current technology.
The discovery of gravitational waves did not happen overnight. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment was conceived in the 1980s, construction began in 1994, and science-grade operations began in 2002. At that time I was an undergraduate just beginning my physics career, and over the next 13 years I attended several talks and seminars by LIGO scientists. In every presentation there was nothing to show except diagrams of their improving instrumentation and graphs demonstrating that their sensitivity was getting steadily better. It was only last year that they finally achieved the level of sensitivity they needed to see the black hole merger now known as GW150914.
LIGO has thrown open a whole new field of astronomy and will continue to make important discoveries. But it is worth taking a step back to think about what has just been achieved. Hundreds of scientists thought it was worth spending over 20 years and more than half a billion dollars to record a tiny vibration that lasted less than half a second. If any parallel to the parable of the pearl of great price is to be found in the world of science, this is it. For here we have a group of men and women who have, in a certain sense, sold everything they possessed to obtain a precious piece of information about our universe. It is a remarkable example of how the most fundamental motivation of science is the human desire for contemplation.
Scientists as Contemplatives
It is not conventional to call scientists contemplatives, but this is probably because we tend to associate contemplation with lofty mystical practices. In fact, contemplation is nothing other than taking delight in what is beautiful and good and true and lovable and having one’s whole attention absorbed by it. This is a simple definition, but contemplation in practice can be profound and life-changing. It is enjoyable, and though in the moment it is quite effortless, contemplation is far from passive because the whole self is engaged. It feels effortless because it is what our minds were ultimately made to do.
Human beings contemplate many things, and one of them is the world we live in. Scientists do this in a particular way, delighting in the world insofar as it is mathematical, ordered and theoretically intelligible. This may sound abstract or even dull, but the actual experience of scientists is not so esoteric. For example, a colleague once told me about the time he thought his research group had made a Nobel-worthy discovery about the shape of the universe. For the rest of the day—until they realized they had unfortunately mixed up a simulation with their real data—he was so excited that his heart was thumping uncontrollably in his chest, almost like a cartoon character. This visceral response to something wonderfully new was a far cry from the Spock-like emotional detachment that is often popularly attributed to scientists. I have seen similar reactions among fellow scientists facing new discoveries: exuberance, the irrepressible urge to share the result with others, even giddiness.
But scientific contemplation can also be more serene. Another colleague of mine simply says “Wow!” when you show him an interesting new result, then absently smiles and sits in silent pleasure before the plot or the equation. In my own experience, this kind of moment is the fruit of all one’s hard work. There is a real reward in being able to take a step back and enjoy what has been uncovered and understood. Whether it be an elegant theory learned in the classroom or the final, confirmed result of a long research program, there is nothing like pausing and simply being present at the newly discovered reality before you. Like standing in front of a magnificent piece of art, it is at the same time mentally effortless and full of intellectual energy.
It is significant that all the states I have mentioned above—the exuberance, the racing of the mind, the pounding of the heart and finally the sheer pleasure of delightedly fixing your mind on the object of interest—are all experienced by a person in love. C. S. Lewis once rightly described being in love as contemplative. A lover experiences “a delighted preoccupation with the Beloved—a general, unspecified, preoccupation with her in her totality.… If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’ He is Love’s contemplative.” Obviously, no scientist loves an equation or an experimental result in the same way that a man loves a woman. But the analogy is strong, nevertheless. Like a lover, a scientist before a new insight or discovery often simply wants to “go on thinking” of it. Like a lover, a scientist at the peak of his power is a contemplative.
Of course, the day-to-day work of science is not a continuous rapture of contemplation, no more than real love consists in the perpetual giddiness of being “in love.” Most of science is simply hard work: patiently sifting through data, retrying things a slightly different way, even sitting in front of a blank piece of paper waiting for inspiration. Of my many months working on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope in northern Chile, a goodly fraction has consisted of shoveling snow out of our generator shed, spending long, cold evenings measuring the shape of our mirrors and trying to track down electrical problems in our hundreds of cables.
Naturally, the actual work of science must have its own pleasures if one is to stick to it, but all meaningful work has a goal. The fact that the moments of real contemplation are rare only makes their worth that much more apparent. Even a little taste of contemplation is enough to draw a person into years of study and toil, and to sustain him in it. It is astonishing but true that being absorbed by a single article in Scientific American can be enough to convince a teenager to study physics in college, or that a freshman struck by the elegance of an equation will be inspired to continue on to a graduate school and beyond.
One might question whether this is an overly romantic account of why scientists do what they do. After all, there is plenty of careerism, rivalry and one-upmanship in the corridors of science departments and research labs. Research programs are often driven more by funding considerations than by the pure desire to know the truth. All of this is true, but it does not explain why people become interested in science in the first place, nor does it fully account for why scientists persevere in their research. Despite human flaws and counterproductive social structures, the desire scientists have for basic research cannot be explained away. And it is just a simple fact that they are excited by the work they do.
Science and Beauty
The existence of gravitational waves was predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago as a natural consequence of his new theory of gravity, or general relativity. The technology LIGO uses did not exist at that time, but general relativity made another prediction that prompted Arthur Eddington to organize an expedition to the island of Principe for the solar eclipse of 1919. When the sun was blacked out, the team carefully measured the positions of some stars near to the solar disc that would have otherwise been overwhelmed by sunlight. They found that the stars’ positions had been slightly altered because of the bending of their light in the gravity of the sun, and that the amount they shifted was just as Einstein’s theory predicted. Eddington’s result made headlines worldwide and propelled Einstein into popular fame.
Einstein’s fellow physicist Max Planck soon wrote to congratulate him, remarking, “The intimate union between the beautiful, the true and the real has again been proved.” Planck was referring to the elegance of Einstein’s theory, something that almost everyone who has studied general relativity agrees about. As complex as the mathematics quickly become, its basic ideas and core principles are beautiful simplicity itself.
The idea that the transcendentals—the beautiful and the true and the real—run through all of being and are present in everything that exists is not a relic of medieval philosophy or an idiosyncratic notion of Planck’s. Einstein himself shared his intuition. According to a well-known anecdote, when he received the news of the eclipse measurements, he confided to a graduate student, “I knew the theory was correct.” She asked him how he would have reacted if Eddington’s experiment had disagreed. “Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord,” he responded. “The theory is correct.”
In other words, he thought it would be somehow perverse for God (though Einstein was always insistent that he did not believe in a personal God) to allow such a beautiful theory to be otiose. Of course, if we follow the trajectory of this logic too far, there is the danger of relapsing into the premodern notion that physical science can be deduced from elegant metaphysical principles without recourse to experiments and observation. But if we remember that beauty and truth are found together—are two aspects of reality—we cannot go far astray.
Today, scientists continue to describe their discoveries as “beautiful.” Rainer Weiss, one of the project leaders of LIGO, said with enthusiasm that their observations are “beautifully described in the Einstein theory of general relativity.” His colleague Kip Thorne spoke of the results as “our first beautiful examples” of a new way of studying the universe. They did not speak in terms of utility or profit or innovation because, at the end of the day, beauty is what captivates the scientist, what motivates him to spend his life searching for the true and the real.
The Good and God
In his letter to Einstein, Planck neglected to mention the good, another of the traditional transcendentals. But it, too, is highly relevant, for nobody who can help it works for something that is not good. If you think this is a banal point, take a step back and consider the fact that grown men and women devote all their working hours to the pursuit of knowledge that in and of itself will not make them rich or give them political power or win them a spouse. Neither will their work contribute much to ends that we normally associate with goodness. Pure science does not directly reduce poverty or broker peace or restore justice. The simple, startling fact is that we consider scientific knowledge as a good in itself. The goal of science is not only the real, the true and the beautiful, but also the good.
It is therefore no mere coincidence that modern science should have emerged in a Christian civilization. A prerequisite for a society that cultivates science is that it values contemplation as a good in itself and is not beholden to practical utility. A culture in which contemplation is considered the highest vocation—in which Mary chooses the better part and in which all men and women are invited to the eternal contemplation of God face-to-face—is the perfect environment for science. This is not to argue that modern science could not have emerged in another civilization with another religion, nor is it to gloss over any of the friction between religion, philosophy and science that arose in modern times. Rather, it is to point out that the scientific worldview that we take so much for granted relies on a definite vision of the human vocation and a robust metaphysical underpinning.
This can help us put the practice of science in perspective. Catholic tradition at its best has always valued secular intellectual pursuits, recognizing that God can be found in all things, but at the same time it has proclaimed that the Gospel is the most perfect way—and ultimately the only way. Insofar as the truth, beauty and goodness discovered by science lead us to know and love our Creator more fully, they are to be embraced, but at the end of the day the happiest contemplatives are not scientists on earth but saints in heaven. Scientific contemplation may be good practice, but it is not the end goal. Scientists who put all their energy into their work, leaving none over for family or society or God, do not make for happy people.
But science becomes this false idol only when we insist that it alone tells us the truth about the world. If we avoid this pitfall, science can take its place alongside art and philosophy and all the other cultural pursuits that inspire us to raise our minds above the routines of everyday life. Especially in our age, when scientific research attracts widespread public interest and enjoys academic prestige, it can be a powerful cultural signpost pointing to contemplation.
The scientific desire to understand the beauty, truth and goodness of the physical world goes beyond the here and the now, beyond the life of getting and spending, beyond all the distractions that loudly compete for our attention but never satisfy the human heart. If science can open the door a crack to this world beyond, the heavens are the limit.