The universe has ears

The universe has ears

By M.J. Akbar | 13 February, 2016
Dr David Reitze, Executive Director of LIGO Laboratory at Caltech, shows the merging of two black holes at a news conference to discuss the detection of gravitational waves,in Washington on Thursday. REUTERS
Is the universe a well-conceived design rather than a series of random accidents? Is there existence outside the timelines of this earth?

As an enquiry, science has generally left me perplexed. During first encounters in school, physics was a bit of blank and chemistry intriguing only when it lit a few flames. Mathematics was more welcome, with its logic and assumptions, but anything built on a notional zero can only be considered a philosophy.

And then this week, in the pre-dawn stillness of a hotel room I casually switched on a television news channel. Science suddenly acquired an enthralling dimension, an elixir from the amalgam of past, present and so many possible futures. In stunned silence, a phrase from literature, which had told me what to expect while reason taught me to reject as beyond belief, took an enchanting reality: the music of the spheres. I heard the ethereal, haunting melody of two black holes colliding a billion light years away, pulled by gravitation. At an intellectual level, Pythagoras had met Einstein. The mystic-mathematician of ancient Greece has proposed that all celestial bodies moved in harmony, that each had a unique hum imperceptible to the human ear. This was music of the spheres, a concept that cast a magnetic spell on poets.

For an individual like me, bystander to the genius of generations and the audacious brilliance of contemporary scientists, the music opened the mind to linkages across the universe that offered a radical new meaning to the essence of existence, time and space. Life is but the passage of time which ends abruptly in a void. What happens thereafter is a conundrum whose answer is available only in the certainties of faith and doctrine, and not the uncertainties of human intellectual endeavour.

But this endeavour has now proved that there is sound in the universe, in addition to gravity. In other words, elements of human experience do exist in worlds elsewhere. Sound is no longer just a function of one of the human senses but of eternal existence. I can only repeat a statement made by Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia University professor who is on the LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] team, to the New York Times: “I think this will be one of the major breakthroughs in physics for a long time. Everything else in astronomy is like the eye. Finally, astronomy grew ears. We have never had ears before.”

Think of the profound difference, so eloquently described. Sight emerges from the human eye, and travels as far as human capability. Sound arrives from somewhere else; and now we know that this somewhere else can be a billion light years away. The eye is subjective. The ear is objective.

We seem to be on the brink, once again, of another decisive leap forward beyond the existing frontiers of knowledge. It is easy to overestimate the drama of discovery. Scientists repeatedly warn against hyperbole. They take pains over every step: “painstaking” is clearly a word that comes from a laboratory or an observatory. Lifetimes are lost in the conversion of information into fact, and even fact is acknowledged as temporary, awaiting the next stride into the unknown.

But it is equally easy to underestimate a discovery. Perhaps I am over-reacting in my excitement but I prefer to err on the side of optimism. Surely the excitement of discovery lies precisely in its ability to scatter more questions into the air than it answers on the ground? More than two thousand years of questions separated Pythagoras from Einstein, and a century of relentless effort lay between Einstein and the Virgo Collaboration and LIGO team.

Is the universe, whose extent we cannot comprehend, a well-conceived design rather than a series of random accidents, as much conventional “anti-God” writing argues? Is there existence outside the timelines of this earth?

Our imagination has always been inspired by the promise of time reversal. When Albert Einstein was shaping his ideas, H.G. Wells was penning The Time Machine. Indian philosophy has always dismissed time as an illusion, a necessary requirement for belief in reincarnation. LIGO scientists have recorded the warps and volatility of time. Time has more dimensions than our mind can marshal. What next? Where next?

Would it be a descent from sublime to the ridiculous to mention astrology? Astrology does not have the dressing or rigour of science, but its hold on our convictions is surely evidence of something more than collective insecurity. The daily or weekly forecasts in media are obviously nonsense but the reverence that the horoscope commands across cultures hints at some back story that has been lost.

I don’t know the answers. I only know the questions.

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