Observing Einstein’s Outrageous Universe

Pacific islanders used ocean waves to predict the location of new islands. Oceans waves carry information about the distribution of land in the ocean. About a hundred years ago, Einstein’s General Relativity predicted that a different flavor of waves, gravitational waves, carry information about the distribution of matter in the fabric of space and time. For the first time, on September 14, 2015, gravitational waves were detected validating Einstein’s prediction.

I recently attended Observing Einstein’s Outrageous Universe, a three-day course brightly organized by the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics at the University of Chicago. The course, introduced by Dr. Michael Turner, famous for coining the term Dark Energy, successfully attempted to draw a better understanding of cosmology, to facilitate conversations with leading edge researchers, and to provide tools and resources to bring the frontiers of physics to science centers and planetariums across the nation.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the curvature of spacetime that propagate at the speed of light. They are caused by some of the most catastrophic and energetic processes in the universe, such as colliding black holes. Dr. Daniel Holz talked about their unexpected first detection and what it meant for him and the team at LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

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Dr. Daniel Holz and Dr. Michael Turner

Furthermore, we dove deep into the world of Einstein himself with New York Times’ science writer Dennis Overbye, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way with Dr. Andrea Ghez, the death of stars with Dr. Daniel Scolnic, gravitational lensing with Dr. Michael Gladders, the Big Bang with Dr. Rocky Kolb, and the future of General Relativity with Dr. Joseph Lykken. The icing on the cake was a visit to the Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the United States.

Truth is, I had a great time plunging into a past life of mine, that of academia, one that I miss more than I thought I did. Nevertheless, I certainly enjoyed attending the course from where I stand these days. Planetariums and science centers have the responsibility, as the centers of scientific excellence they are, to make leading edge research accessible to broader audiences, including the next generation of scientists and engineers, by means of informal science education.

Cosmology is the science of the origin and development of the universe. A universe that through time and for us has grown from a flat earth to the astronomical cosmos we are familiar with today. Our understanding of the universe is the consequence of the friendly tension between the predictions of the mathematical models of the time and the observations that eventually validate or not those predictions. Einstein’s model came to expand upon Newton’s one, and explained some observations the latter could not. Some of the predictions of Einstein’s model are being validated now, time later, but it is also becoming obvious that, sooner or later, a new model will expand upon Einstein’s. Who knows, maybe this new model will somehow be the result of a spark in a young mind during an inspirational visit to a planetarium like ours. Keep looking up!

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