Too often people ask, what’s the use of science like this, if it doesn’t produce faster cars or better toasters. But people rarely ask the same question about a Picasso painting or a Mozart symphony. Such pinnacles of human creativity change our perspective of our place in the universe. Science, like art, music and literature, has the capacity to amaze and excite, dazzle and bewilder. I would argue that it is that aspect of science — its cultural contribution, its humanity — that is perhaps its most important feature.

What more can we learn about the universe from a stupefying experimental feat observing a stupefying wonder of nature? The answer is anyone’s guess. Gravitational-wave observatories of the future will be able to explore the exotic features of black holes. This may shed light on the evolution of galaxies, stars and gravity. Eventually, we may be able to observe gravitational waves from the Big Bang, which will push the limits of our current understanding of physics.

Gravitational waves emerge from near the “event horizon” of black holes, the so-called exit door from the universe through which anything that passes can never return. Near such regions, for example, time slows down by a huge amount, as anyone who went to see the movie “Interstellar” knows. (Coincidentally the original treatment for “Interstellar” was written by Kip Thorne, one of the physicists who helped conceive of the LIGO experiment.)

Ultimately, by exploring processes near the event horizon, or by observing gravitational waves from the early universe, we may learn more about the beginning of the universe itself, or even the possible existence of other universes.

Every child has wondered at some time where we came from and how we got here. That we can try and answer such questions by building devices like LIGO to peer out into the cosmos stands as a testament to the persistent curiosity and ingenuity of humankind — the qualities that we should most celebrate about being human.



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