Today is a great day for science. At 9:35 AM this morning, I received an email letter from MIT’s president L. Rafael Reif, announcing the results of decades-long effort in trying to detect gravitational waves. Today, the National Science Foundation, MIT, and Caltech made the announcement that they have detected gravitational waves for the first time, confirming Einstein’s theory from 100 years ago.
I could hardly contain my excitement. I am in complete awe of science, of the scientists, and just…the world. President Reif’s insightful letter also calls us to reflect on what today means in humanity and scientific history, and I’d like to share it with you. Here is the full reproduction of the letter, with my emphasis added.
February 11, 2016
Dear MIT graduate,
At about 10:30 this morning in Washington, D.C., MIT, Caltech and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will make a historic announcement in physics: the first direct detection of gravitational waves, a disturbance of space-time that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.
You may want to watch the announcement live now. Following the NSF event, you can watch our on-campus announcement event.
You can read an overview of the discovery here as well as an interview with MIT Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss PhD ’62, instigator and a leader of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) effort.
The beauty and power of basic science
I do not typically write to you to celebrate individual research achievements, no matter how impressive; our community produces important work all the time. But I urge you to reflect on today’s announcement because it demonstrates, on a grand scale, why and how human beings pursue deep scientific questions – and why it matters.
Today’s news encompasses at least two compelling stories.
First is the one the science tells: that with his theory of general relativity, Einstein correctly predicted the behavior of gravitational waves, space-time ripples that travel to us from places in the universe where gravity is immensely strong. Those rippling messages are imperceptibly faint; until now, they had defied direct observation. Because LIGO succeeded in detecting these faint messages – from two black holes that crashed together to form a still larger one – we have remarkable evidence that the system behaves exactly as Einstein foretold.
With even the most advanced telescopes that rely on light, we could not have seen this spectacular collision, because we expect black holes to emit no light at all. With LIGO’s instrumentation, however, we now have the “ears” to hear it. Equipped with this new sense, the LIGO team encountered and recorded a fundamental truth about nature that no one ever has before. And their explorations with this new tool have only just begun. This is why human beings do science!
The second story is of human achievement. It begins with Einstein: an expansive human consciousness that could form a concept so far beyond the experimental capabilities of his day that inventing the tools to prove its validity took a hundred years.
That story extends to the scientific creativity and perseverance of Rai Weiss and his collaborators. Working for decades at the edge of what was technologically possible, against the odds Rai led a global collaboration to turn a brilliant thought experiment into a triumph of scientific discovery.
Important characters in that narrative include the dozens of outside scientists and NSF administrators who, also over decades, systematically assessed the merits of this ambitious project and determined the grand investment was worth it. The most recent chapter recounts the scrupulous care the LIGO team took in presenting these findings to the physics community. Through the sacred step-by-step process of careful analysis and peer-reviewed publication, they brought us the confidence to share this news – and they opened a frontier of exploration.
At a place like MIT, where so many are engaged in solving real-world problems, we sometimes justify our nation’s investment in basic science by its practical byproducts. In this case, that appears nearly irrelevant. Yet immediately useful “results” are here, too: LIGO has been a strenuous training ground for thousands of undergraduates and hundreds of PhDs – two of them now members of our faculty.
What’s more, the LIGO team’s technological inventiveness and creative appropriation of tools from other fields produced instrumentation of unprecedented precision. As we know so well at MIT, human beings cannot resist the lure of a new tool. LIGO technology will surely be adapted and developed, “paying off” in ways no one can yet predict. It will be fun to see where this goes.
* * *
The discovery we celebrate today embodies the paradox of fundamental science: that it is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic. Without basic science, our best guess never gets any better, and “innovation” is tinkering around the edges. With the advance of basic science, society advances, too.
I am proud and grateful to belong to a community so well equipped to appreciate the beauty and meaning of this achievement – and primed to unlock its opportunities.
In wonder and admiration,
L. Rafael Reif
I am close to tears just pondering about this significant finding. As President Reif says, it tells a marvelous story on science–how our universe works–and on human achievements, the painstaking work of dedicated scientists over decades. I am so thrilled for the researchers and graduate students who have been working on the problem for many years without any spotlight. Science is humble work. As said in the letter, science “is painstaking, rigorous and slow – and electrifying, revolutionary and catalytic.”
What a marvelous day for science. What a great day to be alive!
P.S. Watch the videos below to learn more about the discovery. The first is the NSF announcement from today and the second is a clip from MIT.
This article is the third of an essay series on engineering, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here and the second here.
“I can’t just work with mice!” Billy told me after not seeing each other for 8 years. “I need people, human interaction.” I knew Billy in Boston when he was a biomedical engineering student. Between then and now, he switched to anthropology and went on to do humanitarian work around the world, places like South Sudan and Nepal. He glowed when he said, “I love it.”
I admired his courage to make the turn to his very fascinating, and important, current work.
In describing his human-deprived environment, Billy hit on a distinct aspect of technical work, especially in a research setting. Mental activity—reasoning, analyzing, experimenting—is on overdrive while social needs remain starved. While we’re at it, let’s just be honest here and admit that it puts physical activity in expense too. Who’s got time for the treadmill when you need results? I’ll do it next month. Or year.
The nature of engineering work often requires isolation. Quite a number of us can get away from not talking to anybody in a given day, if we want to (and sometimes I do). This caveman-like behavior becomes a problem, though, when it is elongated, because, well, breaking news, engineers are humans too. And humans need other humans [citation not needed].
As such, engineers then are not exempt from the regular laws that govern normal, daily humanness. Like eating, breathing, and… oh yeah, interacting with other people.
Ever heard someone say, “I wish people are more like machines, give an input and you know what the output will be”? Maybe you heard it from me. Surprise, surprise, humans are nonlinear, unpredictable, and non-formulaic. And we engineers ought to know how to be human too.
What Gives Work Meaning
Why am I making such a big fuss about this? It’s because of this notion of a fulfilled life, which I want and cannot buy. Can I, engineer, have a fulfilled life and glow like Billy when he talked about his work? Can I do engineering with some soul?
I should note that many scientists and engineers glow when they talk about their work, because they just love science. For many, this love is enough to fulfill their lives.
But what I’m seeking for myself is the type of glow from knowing that my work helps another person. It’s the element of service that gives meaning to my existence. I won’t pretend that doing engineering in an office can be as noble as empowering communities out of poverty. They are incomparable. But, can I, in some degree, bring this type of soul work into my daily life?
To me, being an engineer is part of my identity, but not its totality. It’s deeper than a mere role, but there are other things that make up who I am as well. Who I am, in total, is a human being, with a body, mind, and soul.
The Soul Dimension
I wrote before about the segmentation of knowledge, how our education is classified into silos that are often tangential to each other. Here, I’m questioning the segmentation of the things that make us human: the body, mind, and soul.
Of all three, the soul seems to be the most optional in modern, Western society. The body commands greater interests now as health trends occupy media attention. But our greatest preoccupation, though, is mental. Our schools and employers are less concerned with people having good health, good character, and fulfilled lives than with their brains’ outputs. In the race towards prosperity and paid bills, we pursue education to get a job, and work, work, work. Exercising, eating well, thinking about the purpose of work, loving what you do, and giving back to others are luxuries that many can’t afford.
This arena of the soul covers a wide field (or, I’m recasting it as a wide field). It is the sphere where we have human connections, compassion, and appreciation for beauty, wonder, and fulfillment. It is something that is beyond physical or mental, but rather a spiritual aspect being human. By spiritual, I’m not talking about religious experiences exclusively, but a soul component to life that reaches beyond our own selves. I believe all of us seek something spiritual.
Abraham J. Heschel says,
Human is he who is concerned with other selves. Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out. A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing. Always in need of other beings to give himself to, man cannot even be in accord with his own self unless he serves something beyond himself. Man is Not Alone, p 138.
I think Heschel is on to something here, because there’s evidence of this need to give. We admire individuals who are not only smart and good-looking, but who also invest themselves in the good of the world. The ones that can combine the body, mind, and soul command our greatest respect, perhaps because they have something that we ourselves seek.
[True education] has to do with the whole being… It is the harmonious development of the physical, the mental, and the spiritual powers. – Ellen White, Education.
Whoever came up with the idea that any one of the body-mind-soul triads can be neglected without consequences? When I first encountered this quote, it was groundbreaking, because it sounded foreign. I thought education only had to do with the mind.
I began to understand the interaction of the three when I started taking stocks of my days. The best days at work for me are those when I feel useful to other people, when my work directly helps another person and makes their lives easier, even in a small way. I now understand this as the spiritual aspect of my work, and though anticlimactic from the grand ideas above, it is a start of a journey.
I think, whatever field one may be in, these body-mind-soul combo needs to be fulfilled. For an engineer, the soul aspect is probably the one more lacking. But other profession fields may suffer in a different way, maybe too much soul or too physical, but not enough mind, or too much soul and mind yet very sedentary.
This balanced development though will not be given to us on a platter. We must seek it and pursue it actively into becoming a whole, holistic human being.
True education means more than the pursual of a certain course of study – Ellen White
Once upon a Princeton semester, I journeyed from the corridors of the Engineering Quadrangle, through the Shapiro Walk, flanked between the glass-windowed, rooftop-gardened ORFE (Operations Research and Financial Engineering) building and the Engineering Library, past the Woodrow Wilson School, and entered the 1879 Hall, where I enrolled in a History of Science course.
I dare say few trod this path, for why would an engineer willingly “inflict” upon themselves the trouble of reading, discussing, and writing papers for a Humanities class, especially when it’s not required?
As for me, I was simply feeling exploratory. It is also worth mentioning that I suck at Humanities classes. I’m not particularly good at writing Humanities papers, I dread class discussions, and I lack the skill to ask the right analytical questions for the materials at hand.
Although the course title bore the word “Science,” the class felt worlds away from my daily reality over at the EQuad. It was philosophical, historical–for a lack of a better description–and naturally, I struggled, but managed, to keep up.
You could say it was a detour from my academic orbit.
The Siloed Education
What was most fascinating about this experience, however, was not how foreign the content of the class was to me. Instead, it was my full ignorance that the Philosophy department was housed in a building that I passed by almost every day. I had no idea about what took place in this space that I was familiar with.
Institutions of learning are architecturally organized by departments and disciplines. Each lives within their own space, with occasional crossing in some interdisciplinary efforts. This makes perfect sense in terms of collaboration efforts and administrative activities within the department, minimizing the travel time for frequent internal meetings between faculty members and the student bodies. For the sciences, it makes sense to build laboratory infrastructures in localized areas.
This architectural layout reflects the realities of modern day knowledge, which is segmented by disciplines. As a result, though, students rarely pass through buildings that are not their home departments. More importantly, students rarely interact with those in other fields, especially as they delve deeper into their majors in the latter years of undergraduate studies, and more so in graduate studies. It seems to me that the deeper we go into our academic pursuit, the more disconnected we are to others outside of our circuit.
Even though we occupy the same spaces, namely the university, our realities are tangential to each other, co-existing but barely touching,
Assuming that everyone who reads this was born within the last 200 years, this separation of disciplines in education systems is all that we know. It is simply the way our world is organized, and it is hard to imagine an alternative.
The compartmentalization of knowledge, however, is a relatively recent construct in human history, designated to organize the growing body of academic knowledge during the last two centuries. Beginning in the early 19th century, following the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, and coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, the idea that specialties in a single area (whether in education or manufacturing processes) can produce much gain and efficiency took off.
The fruits of this compartmentalization have multiplied and reproduced spectacularly. Each field has discovered much depth and vastness in its subjects and the benefits are plentiful. Advances in health, medicines, and technologies had increased life expectancies; engineering practices empowered life conveniences and mass production of goods; economics and market understanding have incentivized development worldwide.
Yet, even with this vast body of knowledge, there are still problems that are difficult to address, partly because of the segmented nature of our expertise.
An Argument for Integration
Edgar Morin, French philosopher and sociologist, eloquently explains why these silos of knowledge are imperfect.
See the full interview here.
For one, it has troubles with addressing complex problems with the proper complexity. These are the ones with vast scope, like poverty, the inefficient distribution of food around the world, climate change, environmental degradation, pollution and waste, social justice issues, etc. By nature, these problems require the interplay of multiple disciplines.
Morin argues that there is a need to contextualize knowledge–historically, geographically–“inserting it into the whole [reality] to which it belongs.” For example, “economists who have developed a precise social science based on calculations, are powerless in the face of crises” because humans don’t just obey economic laws, but also many other laws beyond economics.
In a particular poignant sentence, Morin says, “While calculation is useful, it cannot comprehend the suffering and the human problems of our lives.” You cannot calculate human suffering.
The tendency to tell single narratives–seeing and slicing a problem exclusively with a singular point of view–is, I think, stemmed from these separations of disciplines. We don’t know what we don’t know, so how can pivot our perspective?
Does this, then, cause us to miss opportunities at solving complex problems with cohesive solutions that would not solve one and create another problem?
What if, the assumption that learning needs to take place in only one department is challenged? Can education be multifaceted? And what kind of fruits would it produce in society?
Perhaps the more pertinent questions are those posed to the individual. How can we be conscientious learners, who can both learn and contextualize knowledge? How do we make sure, while we are submerged in our respective fields, that we remember the full reality, that life is greater than just our world?