Friday, 12 February 2016

Making Gravity Waves

Much confusion around the Moot House as Ghulez misreads the science news, and confidently opines that he discovered Einstein's waves years ago, and it just depends how much cornflour you use.

Having dissuaded him from boiling up a huge vat of gravy in the sandstone cellars under the Moot House to repeat his experiment, we end up wondering what the practical uses of gravity waves actually are. Especially since the Guardian's "Two centuries of Expectation" turn out to have run concurrently, not consecutively.

I suppose the honest answer is - in practical terms - not much. Gravity waves probably aren't going to be harnessed by massive gravity dams across the Gravity Severn to provide renewable Gravity Power. Or, at least, not without terrible damage to the nesting habitat of the guillemot or something.

But philosophically there's something wonderful about it. There's a human endeavour in it comparable to climbing Everest or completing a really tricky jigsaw - you know, a really tricky Cotswold cottage with roses around the door and a Prime Minister arguing that the local council's spending cuts are outrageous. That kind of tricky. All that red in his face against the yellow oolite is so hard to sort out. Do the edges first, is my advice.

A book of which I am very fond is Keith Thomas's magisterial (it is obligatory to call it magisterial) work "Religion and the Decline of Magic". He writes of those pivotal times between the Renaissance (very much an upper-class event) and the Enlightenment (very much a middle-class one, don't you think? I always believe Voltaire would have called supper " dinner", had he not been French, and purchased a chaise-longue).

Reading Thomas caused me to distinguish between magic, as an attempt to force the universe to do what we ask, and religion - where we ask nicely. In Thomas's worldview, if a spell doesn't work it's because it was not done properly - eye of the wrong species of newt, or the black cat had a white patch on its ear or something. Whereas if prayers do not result in a response it's because God is capricious, sovereign, better-informed or non-existent. Whichever, point is you can't coerce God by doing something just right.

By this definition magic (and for that matter astrology are not forms of religion. They're forms of science. Albeit, like phrenology, graphology, economics and the health pages of the Mail, types of science that don't work.

Which leaves me with two humble disciplines, in both of which I believe. Science, which leaves itself totally open to question - methodology that does astounding things because it does not assume it knows everything, but rather can wait 100 years before it proves the thoughts of a genius - yet which will give up a mechanistic universe just as soon as someone can prove that quantum theory explains the microscopic world properly. 

And then religion, which looks at the universe, tries to take moral meaning from it, and yet is ever aware that though we never cease from our seeking, yet we are unable to control our own destiny or the meaning of our own lives. That will humbly look up and see a Jewish outlaw on a cross and see in that the logic behind all the gravity waves in the universe.

Gravity waves aren't going to be much use. But that's OK. To expect them to provide a practical function like a non-stick saucepan is like asking whether Schrödinger's cat was a good mouser. If they're proven, they are another line of truth and beauty written in the book of this universe. If you're a Christian then they're another amazing revelation of the Logos, in whom we live and move and have our being. If you are a Genesis fan, they're ripples that never come back.

If someone next week proves the experiment was flawed, or there's a better story to explain the results, then that will be accepted - after a fight, rightly - and the search for truth will move on. Science is humble like that.

But considering the gravity waves scientists claim to have found were caused by two black holes colliding, 1.3 billion years ago - if you're a believer doesn't that make you feel humble? If it does, maybe it was worth it.

Do you know, I feel we need the Poet Keats at this point, Jeeves. But then, I often do:

"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

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