I was riding the 3 train to Harlem, heading to an interview with pianist Vijay Iyer about “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,” his collaborative suite with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, when I read the following front-page headline in The New York Times:
“Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Einstein’s Theory.”
Dennis Overbye’s story—the most poetic piece of journalism I’ve come across in the Times in many years—gave the news about sonic evidence of, well, a cosmic rhythm: A “faint rising tone” that, physicists say, “is the first direct evidence of gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago.”
When I last spent time with Wadada Leo Smith, he was leading a workshop for instrumentalists, during which he’d pulled out an image meant to represent a “black hole.” He wanted to investigate the idea of a black hole through tone and rhythm.
Turns out the scientists working on the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) were up to pretty much the same thing, only using different instruments.
Overbye described this historic discovery as “the last waltz of a pair of black holes.”
And here’s the details he gave of those instruments, which should make any audiophile blush:
LIGO’s antennas are L-shaped, with perpendicular arms 2.5 miles long. Inside each arm, cocooned in layers of steel and concrete, runs the world’s largest bottle of nothing, a vacuum chamber a couple of feet wide containing 2.5 million gallons of empty space. At the end of each arm are mirrors hanging by glass threads, isolated from the bumps and shrieks of the environment better than any Rolls-Royce ever conceived….
Thus coddled, the lasers in the present incarnation, known as Advanced LIGO, can detect changes in the length of one of those arms as small as one ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton — a subatomic particle too small to be seen by even the most powerful microscopes — as a gravitational wave sweeps through.
As they got closer together, these neutron stars would swing around faster and faster, hundreds of times a second, vibrating space-time geometry with a rising tone that would be audible in LIGO’s vacuum-tube “sweet spot.”
When was the last time a science story (and not one about disease or disaster) landed on the Times’ front page? Yet the story is as much about music. I might well have rewritten the headline to read: “Gravitational Waves Detected, Confirming Ornette’s Theory.” (Question: When was the last time a music story landed on the front page?)
Here are some choice excerpts:
“…A fleeting chirp that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”
“That faint rising tone, that simple chirp, which rose to the note of middle C before abruptly stopping…”
“I think this will be one of the major breakthroughs in physics for a long time,” said Szabolcs Marka, a Columbia University professor who is one of the LIGO scientists. “Everything else in astronomy is like the eye,” he said, referring to the panoply of telescopes that have given stargazers access to more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum and the ability to peer deeper and deeper into space and time. “Finally, astronomy grew ears. We never had ears before.”
As they got closer together, these neutron stars would swing around faster and faster, hundreds of times a second, vibrating space-time geometry with a rising tone that would be audible in LIGO’s vacuum-tube “sweet spot.” The frequency of the chirp was too low for neutron stars, the physicists knew. Detailed analysis of its form told a tale of Brobdingnagian activities in a far corner of the universe: the last waltz of a pair of black holes shockingly larger than astrophysicists had been expecting.
And here’s the best quote I’ve found yet to argue the virtues of loudness:
“The loudest things in the gravity-wave sky are the most exotic things in the universe: black holes, neutron stars and the early universe.”
And here’s a soundclip of what the universe laid down: