By Daniel Matthews
People have high expectations about what science and technology can do for our everyday lives. New technology informs efforts at farming. The medical community is progressing with big data to make improvements in patient care. We’re on the verge of seeing drone delivery and automated cars become a reality.
But what will we do with the discovery of gravitational waves? Or, more precisely, what will we do with gravitational waves?
After LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) detected the gravitational waves emitted for twenty thousandths of a second by two colliding black holes, the scientific community, and the publications that reported the discovery, were abuzz. But when reporters asked LIGO Executive Director David Reitze what the discovery means in terms of our everyday lives, he answered, “Who knows?”
A wise answer. What we do with gravitational waves is a matter of our cultural values. It’s a matter of how we want to steer the ship of technology, and science doesn’t make prescriptions in that respect. It makes observations.
I think our society, as a whole, is responsible for how we use discovery. I think we have to examine our uses of related tech and ask if we like what we’re doing so far.
When reporters asked Reitze about the practical usage of gravitational waves, he brought up how people had the same question about Einstein’s theory of general relativity. General relativity describes the way in which gravity affects the passage of time. That is, time is relative to how far away objects are from each other. One way we’ve put this fact to use is with the Global Positioning System (GPS). The system tells us the time by factoring in relativity.
GPS is a web of satellites around the Earth that transmit time and locational information to us via radio waves. Not only is GPS integral in smartphones, fleet managers use it to track fleets of commercial vehicles; businesses use it for geolocation marketing; modern cars incorporate it, and driverless cars won’t work without it — the applications are numerous. The military uses it for all operations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although there are a great deal of other applications for general relativity, GPS is the one affecting us most in our everyday lives. Are we putting such a broad-reaching and important discovery to good use?
Driverless tractors use GPS, but they’re too expensive for most small, sustainable farms to afford. Driverless tractors do more work for the big guys. Big farming practices are rarely organic or sustainable, thus the push against GMO and monoculture.
Before Einstein discovered relativity, scientists and inventors were busy discovering and exploring the possibilities of the electromagnetic spectrum.
In July of 1881, Charles J. Guiteau shot President James Garfield in the back. Doctors couldn’t find the bullet. Alexander Graham Bell, knowing what he knew about electromagnetic waves, brought an early prototype of a metal detector to bear on the problem. The device was confused by springs in the bed, but otherwise would have worked. Bell continued working on procuring the patent for the telephone.
Later, Dr. Gerhard Fisher showed his “aircraft radio direction finder” to Einstein, who predicted its ubiquity. Sure enough, Fisher’s invention went on to become the modern metal detector. Mostly what we see — in wands at security checkpoints, in the hands of treasure hunters — is the Very Low Frequency (VLF) detector. These things work the same way electric motors work, by using a transmitter to create an electromagnetic field.
We’ve also harnessed electromagnetic energy for our radios, TVs, cell phones, microwaves and the Internet. We use the whole spectrum of electromagnetic waves for a variety of commercial, military, medical, and scientific purposes. We could have used electricity to power everything that runs on fossil fuels. But a freely available source of energy with no commercial aspect wasn’t part of our value-set.
America is so into its gadgets, researchers at the University of Washington are working on turning radiofrequency (RF) waves into direct current (DC) power, so people can charge their cell phones via Wi-Fi.
The Internet of Things will use RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), Wi-Fi, GPS, LiDAR and a bunch of other technologies to do things like automate the office refrigerator. On the more serious side, driverless cars could prevent up to 1.3 million deaths annually, because machines don’t drive drunk or fall asleep at the wheel. And, if they’re electric, these cars could help us keep a great deal of the Earth’s fossil fuels in the ground.
So, how do gravitational waves fit into this picture? We’re not able to siphon these waves into convenient, portable, smart devices, and it confounds us. For now, research investment will be a purely scientific endeavor. I think that’s a good thing. Unsullied by commercial interests, science can bask in a formative period of exploration. Nikola Tesla comes to mind. He was a scientist who discovered ways people can benefit from the electromagnetic spectrum outside of the commercial sphere. But oil interests buried his ideas. They’re only coming back to the surface now.
The promise for gravitational waves is a new way of looking at the universe, a new way of viewing time. Could we use gravitational waves in space travel? That would require technology no one has dreamed of yet.
I hope our dreams of gravitational technology can elevate above capital. I hope we can focus on valuing our planet, the universe, and each individual with the technology we create. After all, we’re all affected by how we use discovery.