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Sciences 19 Jun 2016

Intimate effects: Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in the year space-time trembled

One thousand, three hundred billion years ago, in a faraway corner of the Universe, two black holes that had been moving closer since before mammals walked the Earth merged into one. And barely a few months ago, the vibrations in space-time generated by the event reached our planet.

This may seem like the opening of a sci-ence fiction story, but it is actually a news item covered by media the world over. At the start of this year, scientists announced the historic, first-time detection of a gravi-tational wave. On September 14, 2015, at 09:50:45 UTC, the detectors of the LIGO in-ternational collaboration picked up a min-iscule difference, 10,000 times less than the diameter of the proton, in the distance between two points several kilometers apart. In doing so, they demonstrated the existence not just of gravitational waves but also of black holes, those exotic objects first born in the realm of theory.

LIGO’s ul-traprecise measurement brought further proof that humanity’s perception of reality is a mere drop in a far, far richer ocean, with gravitational storms and singularities that pierce space-time.

The cosmos is so far beyond our imagining that not even those who stared at the equations and saw black holes and gravitational waves were con-vinced of their physical existence. So now, a century after Einstein revealed the nature of space-time, physicists are cel-ebrating the toppling of a legendary limit to knowledge. Or, perhaps more aptly, the advancing of one of its frontiers.

Only physicists?

The fact is that not one of the planet’s dwellers felt their body stretch and shrink as the gravitational wave swept the Earth last September. And if space-time vibrations don’t affect us, are we any better off being aware of their existence? We have known for a century that matter tells space how to curve, and space tells matter how to move. So what changes?

Well, a great deal actually. The day after an astronomical observation confirmed Ein-stein’s general theory of relativity, on No-vember 10, 1919, The New York Times carried the front-page headline: “Lights All Askew in the Heavens. […] Einstein Theory Triumphs. Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calcu-lated to Be, but Nobody Need Worry.” With nothing to worry about, and little chance that the new space-time concept would change the lives of anyone except physicists – and then not all of them – Einstein was transformed overnight into a cultural icon of the 20th century.

Gravitational waves are no cause for worry either, provided you are astronomically distant from where they were produced, and yet all leading media, general as well as scientific, celebrated their detec-tion. Not to mention social networks.

So yes, we are affected in some intimate fashion, in the fiber of our beings, by this evidence that the Universe is much bigger than our senses can apprehend.

That is why Stephen Hawking, the “boy who never grew up” in his own definition, was right to bring out a book explaining to everyone how and why the Universe came about. A Brief History of Time achieved record sales, because all children ask themselves that question – though only those, like Hawking, who grew up to be cosmologists remember it as adults.

The Frontiers Awards celebrate knowledge as a force that builds us from within, and dis-tinguish those who produce it. Viatcheslav Mukhanov and Hawking explained how the galaxies were formed, more than thirteen billion years ago, in the primitive, microscop-ic Universe. Stephen Cook has delimited the terrain of what computers can and cannot solve, and in the process breathed life into a whole new area of mathematics.

Of course knowledge is not only concerned with the intangible. The optogenetics of Edward Boyden, Karl Deisseroth and Gero Miesenböck enables the ultraprecise study of that fundamental instrument of any re-search, the human brain, and can also help to cure it.

lkka Hanski and Veerabhadran Ramanathan have not only discovered key pieces in the planet’s relationship with life, but have contributed to improving the qual-ity of that relationship. As for the work done by Martin Ravallion, its aim is not so much to express poverty in a figure as to show that the problem is tangible and can there-fore be confronted.

We are often unaware of how scientific theories impact on our lives through such everyday transactions as buying an airline ticket. For a flight whose fare was no doubt set according to Robert Wilson’s contribu-tions on nonlinear pricing.

The Frontiers Awards reflect the power of knowledge in its broadest sense – basic, applied and, always, transformative – and its multiple languages. Among them mu-sic, which Georges Aperghis extracts from something as subtle as an actor’s gesture.

Impossible, then, to forget that the year space-time trembled was also the year we bid goodbye to David Bowie; innovative, transgressive, another kind of inner sculptor. And author of what many consider the first pop song evoking the desire to explore the Universe. “‘And the stars look very different today’,” tweeted NASA, “RIP David Bowie.”

 

Mónica G. Salomone for the 8th BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards Yearbook.

 

 

 

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