I'm not sure today's commentary is going to work too well. In it I'm conveying a humungous amount of information that might take hours, if not years, to fully appreciate. It is a story partly about massive changes occurring in our scientific knowledge that have the potential to impact in enormous ways on our Creation stories and our understanding of our universe. At another level it is personal to the writer in watching the incredible personal challenge a former student colleague has taken on at the frontiers of scientific research raising sums of money that boggle the mind. In a sense it is like the seeming futility of pursuing an exercise like Catholica. What hope do any of us have to changing an institution as immobile and incapable of change as the Holy Roman Catholic Church? Why do we even try? This is like trying to build a Dream Catcher!
The incredible power of gravity…
I've been on an interesting journey over the past 24 hours sitting right here at home. It's a journey in the mind — partly memories from the past and partly a reflection on the future. Trying to condense it all into an accessible post is difficult but I'll try. If you were to traverse all that I have been watching, reading and thinking you'd have to set aside hours so I'll try and condense it all and you might choose segments of what I present for your own exploration.
The starting point has been the BBC series presented by Professor Brian Cox, The Wonders of the Universe, which we have featured on the Catholica Video Channel at the moment and, in particular, the third episode of the series "Falling" — which is all about the place the force of gravity plays in our existence. If you've not already watched the episode you can watch it at the bottom of this commentary but I suggest you read on for a moment before doing so because I want to provide some context from the rest of my journey yesterday.
In the first episode of his series, entitled "Destiny", Professor Cox, explored the concept of time and, in particular, the idea of an "arrow of time" that provides direction and a sense of destination to our existence. In the second episode, entitled "Stardust", he explored the notion that ultimately all matter in the universe, including the atoms and molecules that make up each one of us, are generated in the stars. Each of us is literally made of "stardust". As well as being a magnificent exploration of contemporary science, I am finding this a fascinating series for theological reflection: how do these ideas science is revealing to us make sense in terms of the theological paradigm in which I was brought up?
The episode on gravity had particular poignancy for me. Some of you may remember a post I made on the old CathNews discussion board way back in September 2003 when I undertook a journey in Western Australia with my former Physics teacher at Aquinas College, "Doc" Vin McKenna, to the Gravity Wave Observatory that is being constructed on the coastal sandplain a couple of hours north of Perth and close to the Benedictine Abbey at New Norcia. I've archived that story on my personal website and if you have the time you might like to read it as it might give you a brief introduction to this exciting international initiative the Physics departments of a number of Australian universities and the CSIRO are engaged in to build the first gravity wave observatory in history. You'll find that story at: www.viastuas.net.au/opinion/GWO.php.
What became particularly interesting for me yesterday is that I went exploring on the internet to see what progress had been made in the nearly eight and a half years since my visit to the Gravity Wave Observatory. In one sense the answer I found is "not much" — despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars they have still not detected a single gravity wave. The guy who heads up the whole endeavour, Professor David Blair, from the University of Western Australia, was two years ahead of me when I studied physics back in the 1960s at UWA. Here's a brief intro from The Australian International Gravitational Research Centre website [www.gravity.uwa.edu.au/] that explains what they are endeavouring to achieve.
Gravitational Waves (GWs) are ripples in space-time which carry energy and angular momentum at the speed of light. Predicted by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, there has been to date only indirect evidence for their existence, through the observation of energy loss from binary pulsars (Weisberg and Taylor, 1984). Taylor and his student Hulse received the Nobel prize in 1993 for this proof of the existence of gravity waves. Numerous experiments have confirmed the underlying theory of General Relativity to a high degree of precision. Yet the direct observation of GWs is still necessary for the wave solutions of the Einstein's field equation to be fully investigated. More importantly, however, the ability to directly detect GWs will create a new kind of Astronomy.
In the end I read this long prospectus they have put together seeking research funding for the next phase of development of the Observatory [LINK=www.gravity.uwa.edu.au/docs/aigo_prospectus.pdf 3.47Mb]. This is a mammoth scientific endeavour — and Australia's part is only a tiny fraction of the international effort going in to building an Observatory that is effectively as large as planet earth itself to detect these illusive waves. They contain massive amounts of energy but "catching them" might be likened to "catching our dreams".
What particularly struck me though is some sort of parallel to what I've been trying to do here at Catholica. The truth is I don't know what I am trying to do. This endeavour is like "catching a dream" — an elusive idea ... or a set of theological ideas that better explain our purpose for existence. David Blair and his colleagues are presently engaged in an urgent quest to raise $170m dollars as their research counterparts in the United States want to transfer a whole heap of technology to Western Australia that will vastly augment the Australian effort and perhaps save hundreds of millions of dollars [See this news story HERE!]. As that article, "U.S. Physicists Eye Australia for New Site of Gravitational-Wave Detector", published in Science Magazine in August last year shows these guys face similar sort of struggles to those anyone faces in trying to mount effective communication endeavours in theology and spirituality. The gravitational research has been going on in Australia for around 20 years now and they have not yet achieved their goal of actually detecting a single gravitational wave. It must be as frustrating to them as it is building an endeavour like Catholica. I suspect their chances of hitting "pay dirt" though are a heck of a lot more realisable than ours LOL.
Now that I have probably confused the living daylights out of you all here is a short video explaining the Gravitational Wave Observatory which I have lifted from the LIGO Australia website.
And finally here's Episode Four of Professor Brian Cox's series, The Wonders of the Universe...
Brian Coyne, 26 Apr 2011
What are your thoughts on this commentary?