It Only Lasted Less Than a Seccond!
CHAPTER 66 Wisdom and Gravitational Waves
What to write about? I'm torn - I planned to write about birds, notably parrots and an albatross, and also a bit about the future of astronomy. But then came the headline-making news I could hardly ignore - the long sought detection by LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) of a gravitational wave, the existence of which was predicted by my scientific hero, Einstein, a century ago. Not only that, but our StocksandNews editor Brian Trumbore's Week in Review column of February 13 stated that Dr. Bortrum will explain this discovery in his column. So, let me start off with birds and, hopefully, I'll school myself sufficiently in the next week or so to be able to write somewhat intelligently about gravitational waves. (I'm actually starting this column on the day before Valentine's Day.)
My favorite bird was Alex, the African grey parrot whose death in 2007 at the age of 31 merited an obituary in the New York Times. Alex was very intelligent, with a vocabulary of over a hundred words and would actually toy with researchers, deliberately giving wrong answers to questions when bored or when encountering a new student in his mentor's lab. The cover story in the January 31, 2016 issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine section was about parrots that had been treated just the opposite of Alex. The article, titled "Of a Feather" by Charles Siebert, is about the parrots of Serenity Park, a facility on the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center. The facility is home to damaged and/or abandoned parrots of all kinds and sizes. Coincidentally, at a February 2 meeting of our Old Guard group, a young lady from ASPCA gave an interesting presentation on a program at a nearby animal shelter that takes in damaged or mistreated dogs from all over the country. She showed film clips of dogs totally out of control. After some weeks or months of therapy, a majority of these dogs behaved quite differently and were ready for adoption.
Not only dogs can be damaged. Visit Serenity Park and you see parrots in distress, pacing back and forth, screeching, and often uttering phrases or singing songs learned from their previous owners. But the Times article doesn't focus on the parrots so much as on the interactions of the parrots with troubled veterans at the VA Center. We have all read or seen examples of dogs in therapy roles and touching cases of war veterans insisting on adopting dogs they served with in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. The surprising thing is that in Serenity Park, veterans with problems such as PTSD have found mutually beneficial interactions pairing up with the traumatized parrots, many of which have the avian equivalent of PTSD.
Much of the long article is devoted to the case of a 54-year-old woman whose life was severely changed decades ago when she had just finished a 5-year tour of duty as an Alaska-based Coast Guard rescue swimmer whose duties included rescuing fisherman in trouble in rough seas. It was the day after she left active service that her helicopter crashed, killing six of her former crewmates. The trauma this caused her was so great that it ruined her life, with drinking and drugs eventually taking their toll. A number of stays at the VA clinic and being prescribed a host of psychiatric drugs and therapies did not help. However, in 2006 she was in the garden and noticed the parrots. Interacting with those damaged parrots was the medicine she needed and her life was changed.
She and the damaged parrots shared much the same sort of psychological and physical problems. It seems that parrots are social animals that flock together and they get to know members of the flock individually. When a parrot is taken from the flock by a human, the parrot's flocking instincts are transferred fully to its new owner. Parrots can live a long time, possibly 70 years or so. When the parrot's owner dies or abandons it, the parrot is devastated, showing much the same symptoms as humans with PTSD. Interacting with humans having similar problems can be healing or at least helpful to both species in dealing with their problems. If you're interested in further information on the parrots Google "Serenity Park parrots".
Another type of bird made news, as I found on the Discover magazine Web site. Wisdom, an albatross at least 65 years old, has just become a record-setting avian mother for an estimated 40th time. She laid an egg back in November and it started hatching on February 1 this year. Wisdom wasn't around for the birth, being off on a hunting trip to find food. The newly born chick was under the care of Wisdom's mate until she returned with food that she regurgitated for the young chick. This makes her the oldest avian mother on record. Biologist Chandler Robbins first tagged Wisdom on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge back in 1956 when she was a mature adult. Remarkably, he sighted Wisdom 46 years later near the same nesting location! Robbins is a hardy soul. Now 97, he still returns to the atoll occasionally for a visit. Those my age will remember Midway, not for its birds, but for the major naval battle there during World War II.
I've put it off long enough. I've got to turn to things astronomical, notably gravitational waves. But first, I was going to write about a special section in the March 2016 issue of Discover magazine describing future programs planned for the world's major telescopes. I won't go into detail here but the outlook for our knowledge of the universe is mind boggling. One example that caught my attention was an upgrade to a telescope on Arizona's Kitt Peak. The upgrade will allow it to map the location of some 25 million galaxies up to 10 billion light-years away from us. The article mentions astronomer Ted Lauer as one who helped adapt the first CCD camera to telescopes. Many years ago, my wife and I drove up to Kitt Peak. There, a guide pointed out that workers were installing a new detector known as a charge-coupled device (CCD) and I told the guide that I knew the inventors of that device, Willard Boyle and George Smith, two of the "game changers" I discussed last month in this column.
OK, gravitational waves. I mentioned I wrote the first paragraph of this column the day before Valentine's Day. That evening, as usual on a Saturday, I was listening to Prairie Home Companion on the radio and Garrison Keillor gave a very brief explanation of gravitational waves! Unfortunately, I was distracted and it was almost over before I realized what he was saying. I waited to write this, expecting that a more reliable account of the finding would appear in the journal Science, which it did in an article by Adrian Cho in the February 12 issue. Needless to say, I was delighted that my scientific hero, Einstein, was once more proven correct in another of his predictions based on his theories of relativity. To this day I cannot imagine why he didn't get a Nobel Prize for relativity.
After writing the preceding paragraph, I decided to search the StocksandNews archives to see if I hadn't discussed gravity waves and LIGO in a previous column.. Sure enough, almost 16 years ago, in my column of May 9, 2000, I discussed at length LIGO and the quest to detect gravitational waves and the huge challenge it posed. I also wrote "I can"t (sic) help repeating how astounded I am that Einstein himself never got the Nobel Prize for relativity!" At least I'm consistent.
What is a gravitational wave? Simply put - a ripple in the fabric of our universe - spacetime. What is spacetime? The three dimensions of space that we know and love plus the dimension of time. Einstein explained gravity as the result of warping spacetime. The standard explanation is to imagine spacetime as a sheet like a trampoline. Put the sun on the sheet and it warps the sheet. Stick our Earth nearby on sheet and it will tend to roll towards the sun because of the warping. Voila! That's gravity. However, in the world of physics, gravity is a very weak force. So, to make a truly significant ripple in spacetime it takes a huge event, something like a supernova or, more to the point, two black holes crashing into each other.
Which is what happened a mere 1.3 billion years ago, when two black holes were spiraling around each other closer and closer until they finally got within just a few hundred miles of each other and merged into a single black hole. In the process, they lost mass equal to about three times the mass of our Sun. As Einstein taught us, that mass is equal to energy, which in this case was in the form of gravitational waves. For a fraction of a second, the merging of the two black holes lit up the universe brighter than all the stars in all the galaxies of the universe! Only thing is that it wasn't in the form of light, but in the form of those gravitational waves. Last year, on September 15 at 4:50 AM at the LIGO in Livingston, Louisiana, a wave signal was detected at a frequency of 35 Hertz (cycles per second) that increased to 250 Hertz. The signal, known as a chirp with its changing frequency, lasted all of a quarter of a second!
Now, a skeptic might say "Hey, you're basing one of the most important events in science on something that lasted less than a second?" I would not blame that skeptic. However, at another LIGO in Hanford, Washington at 2:50 AM local time, just 0.007 seconds later, a similar chirp was observed. A wave traveling at the speed of light from Louisiana to Washington would take just 0.007 seconds to get there. The Science article shows plots of the oscillations of the waves from the two locations, with the time scale adjusted for the 0.007 second delay. The two plots match each other almost perfectly. I'm convinced!
I'm happy to see that the LIGO teams are the first to have detected a gravitational wave. From what I can gather, the National Science Foundation has invested at least a half a billion dollars in the LIGO project and had just completed a 5-year, 200 million dollar upgrade of the system. Only a week or so after turning on the upgraded instruments they found the wave! The LIGO instruments in Washington and Louisiana each contain L-shaped arms in which beams of laser light bounce back and forth in the two arms of equal length, each arm over two miles long! Where the arms meet, the laser beams meet and, if the arms are different lengths the light waves interfere with each other. The arms are like rulers, measuring how much the wave changes their lengths. When a gravitational wave comes by, it will stretch the arms by some ridiculously small amount. The wave they detected caused our Earth to expand and contract by 1/100,000 of a nanometer, about the size of the nucleus of an atom! It's truly mind boggling that they can detect such a minute change.
Quoting from my column 16 years ago, "To even dream of accomplishing such a feat the LIGO guys and gals have to deal with such obvious things as vibrations, expansion and contraction due to heating and cooling, winds and even the "noise" arising from various esoteric quantum mechanical considerations. In my humble opinion, if they manage to pull off the detection of a gravity wave it will rank right up there with putting a man on the moon and the Nobel Prize is a given." Today, there is already talk about who should get the prize. Back in 1972, a physicist at MIT, Rainer Weiss, proposed the basic design of LIGO. There are others who championed the project. One, Kip Thorne of Caltech, thinks the experimenters who achieved the detection should get the award. Awarding credit is an increasing problem in this age of large scale projects where tens, hundreds or even thousands of scientists are involved.
Finally, I recently went to my dermatologist for my semiannual visit and was pleased that, unlike at virtually every other visit, he found nothing he wanted to freeze, burn or scrape off or refer to a surgeon. The reason I mention this is because of another of my scientific heroes. Perhaps next to Einstein, I've been truly impressed with Svante Pӓӓbo, of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Pӓӓbo leads the group there that led the way in analyzing DNA in ancient fossils and in showing that Neandertals and modern humans of the homo sapiens variety indulged in hanky panky back in the day. The result is that in those of us of European origins actually have some 1.5- 4 percent of Neandertal genes in our DNA. Back when I wrote about this work, I was really delighted to find that I was part Neandertal. Somehow, wimp that I am, it seemed like a more manly quality was imparted by a bit of rugged Neandertal background.
Now I'm not so sure. In an article in the February 12 issue of Science, Ann Gibbons cites Pӓӓbo as saying that sometimes the Neandertal genes protect against certain diseases but they also may make people more susceptible to other diseases. However, Pӓӓbo wasn't involved in the work cited in that issue of Science that made me change my mind about my Neandertal heritage. Geneticists Joshua Akey and Tony Capra combed through records of the Neandertal contributions to a group of over 28 thousand people of European ancestry and linked certain segments of Neandertal DNA to higher risks for certain diseases. In particular, I was not happy to find that certain gene variants from my Neandertal ancestors are associated with tendencies to have precancerous actinic keratoses, of which I've had scores over the years, perhaps even a hundred! More serious were findings that such problems as depression and stroke may also be promoted by certain Neandertal genes.
Well, this column has really ended up a mix of topics, so let me end up back on birds. One day last week I looked out the window and there on our driveway was a robin, a promising sign that spring is on the way. Our par-3 municipal golf course is scheduled to open April 1 and I can hardly wait. Next column, hopefully, on or about that same day.
Allen F. Bortrum