Of dust and waves:

The new astronomy

In the last few decades, new astronomy tools and technology have significantly expanded our understanding of God’s universe. The most recent advance has been the discovery of gravity waves caused by the merging of two black holes. Gravity waves are the stretching and shrinking of space itself caused by the mass of items in space such as stars, planets and the much more massive black holes. These waves were predicted by Albert Einstein in 1915, and the scientists who led the discovery of these gravity waves are now expected to win a Nobel Prize.

On September 14 last year at 11:53 local time, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) recorded a 0.2 second “chirp,” a signal indicating a gravitational wave. This type of signal is what models had predicted would happen when two black holes circling each other due to their respective gravity finally came together into a single larger black hole. During the last moments before merging, these black holes emitted gravitational waves 10 times stronger than all the energy emitted by the stars in the universe. Until the development of the LIGO, gravitational waves were undetectable by any other method.

The LIGO device has two arms at right angles. Each arm is four km long and contains laser beams that can detect differences in distance of 1/20th the radius of a photon of light. As the gravitational waves pass the LIGO, one arm changes length more than the other; this difference can be measured. This tool opens up a whole new window on the universe as it gives us another way to study our cosmos.

Review and correction
The scientists who discovered the waves waited until February 11 to announce their discovery. They spent the intervening five months checking for possible alternate explanations for the “chirp” and submitting their findings for review by independent scientists via a peer-reviewed journal. The same date that the journal published their findings, now independently affirmed, the scientists held a press conference to announce that with the discovery of gravitational waves, the investment in LIGO of more than a billion dollars had lived up to its promise.

Their caution in announcing the decision is laudatory, as sometimes discoveries are announced in press conferences and then prove to be wrong or alternate explanations for the data are found to be more reasonable.

One example of the problem with premature announcements is the evidence for background ripples due to rapid inflation of the universe just after the Big Bang, which I discussed in my April 2014 column. Specifically, researchers had used evidence of background radiation from the Big Bang to support the inflation theory of the universe. (This rapid expansion is thought to be responsible for the fact that the cosmos is not all the same but includes stars, planets, and galaxies.) When I was reviewing the articles for the discovery of gravitational waves, I noticed that the astronomers who had claimed to observe this background radiation are now claiming that further analysis of the observed signals suggest they may be due to stellar dust patterns in our Milky Way. They have withdrawn their earlier claim.

Note that this withdrawal does not call into question the Big Bang itself, for which there is considerable other evidence. Rather, it means simply that we have less evidence for one aspect of the theory that is predicted theoretically, namely, the rapid expansion of the cosmos in the first moment of creation. This withdrawal does mean that my column in April 2014 is now no longer accurate.

This review and correction in science is one of its strengths. Unfortunately, these corrections are often not as widely published as the original discoveries. Advances in science often arise out of making sense of new evidence. This process of making sense is one of the reasons that science depends so much on peer review; peer review provides another set of experienced eyes looking at the data to see if there are possibly alternative simpler explanations.

Sometimes theoretical advances generate new ways of looking at data; think of how Einstein expanded on Newton’s theories in physics. The observation of the gravitational effects of the huge black holes by LIGO provides strong evidence that Einstein was right and that our Father has created a very rich and complex creation for us to inhabit.  

Interferometers merge two or more sources of light to create an interference pattern.

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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