Another historic challenge for the scientific community has fallen by the wayside: the search for the elusive gravitational waves predicted by Einstein and crucial to the Big Bang Theory (the real one—not the TV show) has ended in success.

A team of astrophysicists announced this week that their exotic equipment based at the South Pole has detected variations in the universe’s microwave background radiation that are polarized, made that way by ripples in the fabric of space-time caused by gravitational waves produced in the great expansion that followed the Big Bang. No-one’s ever detected gravitational waves themselves since Einstein described them in his Theory of General Relativity ninety-nine years ago, but this is the strongest evidence yet of their existence. The scientists spent three years crunching the data to eliminate every other possibility for what they found. More than that, the existence of these gravitational waves gives a huge boost to what’s known as the Inflationary Universe Theory: that in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, the universe expanded to something approaching what we see now. So a double whammy for the South Pole observation unit, and two major milestones achieved in one stroke.

This comes not all that long after the discovery of the Higgs Boson in the summer of 2012 at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Called the “holy grail” of particle physics, the Higgs Boson (and the omnipresent Higgs Field) are what give objects mass. Their existence was predicted back in 1964 but forty-eight years passed before it could be proven (after which the originators of the idea received a Nobel Prize). Even a few years ago, some wondered if gravitational waves and the Higgs Boson would ever be found. I’m reminded that the proof of extraterrestrial planets is only a few years old, too, though now there have been hundreds discovered, and it’s generally thought that they far outnumber stars in the galaxy.

It makes me wonder: if the great scientific quests of our time are all being achieved, will we suddenly have a whole lot of physicists out of work? There must be something we can put their talents to. Wormholes and black holes are still sexy. How about the multiverse theory (so we can escape climate change to an Earth we haven’t screwed up yet)? Or with so much brainpower on hand, surely time travel isn’t an insurmountable problem? OK—maybe that one is too risky, but at the very least they’ve got to find a way to give us faster-than-light travel or we’ll never get to see any of our own galactic neighbourhood, let alone the rest of the universe.

Or maybe, just maybe, they can go to work on the true unsolvables: why buttered toast always lands face down, and where single socks go when they vanish from the clothes dryer.

Just trying to help


It’s always interesting to follow the top science stories and let your imagination run free. For any SF writer, I’d say it’s an essential exercise. Over the past week:

Remember all the fuss in 2006 when Pluto was downgraded from planet status to the new category of “dwarf planet”? That was because other bodies just as large had been discovered beyond Pluto’s orbit (Eris, Haumea, and others) and within the asteroid belt (Ceres). Scientists got their first good look at one called Makemake recently when it passed it front of distant stars. Unlike Pluto, Makemake appears to have no atmosphere, although its covering of methane ice might vaporize when its orbit brings it to its closest approach to the sun. Dwarf planets aren’t exactly hospitable, but they’d be a whole lot more accessible than the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Even the concept of asteroids or dwarf planets being converted into giant luxury resorts isn’t so far-fetched. A continent-sized skating rink, anyone?

Meanwhile, John Grotzinger, project scientist with NASA’s Mars Rover mission told an NPR reporter that a chemistry lab aboard the Curiosity rover had made a discovery that would be one for the history books, but he refused to elaborate until the data has been thoroughly checked. That set off a flurry of speculation—the discovery might be anything from definite signs of life (my own opinion) to proof of space aliens (I really doubt it). Definitive proof of life beyond Earth will finally give science fiction writers license to embody just about any setting we can imagine with exotic species (we do it anyway, but we’d really love to be able to say, “I told you so.”)

A third story involved the hunt for the ultimate sub-atomic particle, the famous Higgs boson, the proposed particle at the very root of physical structure that would complete our picture of why objects have mass. Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland are nearly certain that they’ve found it (or at least confirmed its existence by observing its by-products). Yet there’s been a measure of disappointment in the announcements. The particle appears to behave exactly according to theory, but that’s the problem. If it had been found to have unexpected properties, that would have been a step toward confirming some of the more exotic theories of physics. As it is, the straightforward Higgs boson just adds support to the current model of the universe. So what’s left to discover? To the particle physicists I say, “Don’t worry”—in 1900 Lord Kelvin is reputed to have said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now; All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” It may have been a misquote, but the opinion wasn’t uncommon at the end of the Victorian era. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.

I’m still confident that the universe is as limitless as our imagination.