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.
“Where did the time go?” we often ask, and no matter the frequency of this conversation, it’s never boring, because we feel its truthfulness each time. Blink once, it’s Monday, blink twice it’s Thursday, and so the weeks, months, and years pass by.
Age, I hear, accelerates this experience, and I can probably agree. It took forever and a half to reach age 10 and another half to 17. But to the observing adults, my aging probably did feel fast. They certainly talk about the flying time with more intensity.
Mathematically, it’s been explained that the ratio of a fixed amount of time, say, a year, to the total length of our growing lifetime will only diminish, hence the increased speediness. It’s perfectly rational. I like rational. But, if the math is the real cause of the experience, how scary is that? It means life will only move faster and faster, like a runaway train that’s gone out of hands. Is there nothing to be done about it?
A Glimmer of Hope
Reading Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air tells me that there may be a way out. Written when their authors were cancer-ridden—the first, a collection of essays written during Oliver’s last two years of his life and the second, written during the two years between Paul’s diagnosis and his death—both writings seem to know how to slow time down.
Faced with the finiteness of their lives, these authors mastered the art of living consciously (isn’t this why time feels fast—it goes by and we are not conscious of it) and thus put a break to the speeding train of time. The writing certainly feels that way, and in reading their words, my time too slows down.
Consciousness of time, I think, is the kindred subject that occupied both men, evaporating the near half-century gap between their ages. Linked to this is also the fierce quest of meaning and the evaluation of their lived years.
Confronting mortality, humankind is forced to reflect. What of my life? Has it been good, meaningful? Am I contented with who I am? And in reflecting, time is recaptured, somehow.
Whether intended or not, Paul and Oliver’s writings have this recapturing effects on me. Their sense of sacredness in the time they had left produced words that grace their readers with wisdom. Yet, is this gift only possessed by those close to death’s door? I’m not dying–not that I know of, at least–and I too am covetous of this consciousness of time.
Oliver’s last and poignant essay was titled “Sabbath,” published in the New York Times two weeks before his death last August, and one that was very important to him. As his days were closing, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Sabbath.
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
After abandoning his Jewish faith and heritage for decades, Oliver recalled one Sabbath celebration in 2014:
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?
I wonder if the Sabbath was made so that humankind would live, in the deepest sense of the word, with consciousness of time. The gift of rest in the Sabbath surpasses the physical realm into the essence of life itself. This infusion is not automatic—I’ve lived Sabbath to Sabbath my entire life and I know that Sabbath too can be busy—but it is a space and time carved out to stop and reflect each week. Did I do well? Was I good? Did I do things that matter?
Robert John Aunamm, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics, said in an interview that Oliver mentioned in his essay,
The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society—it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.
After the ceremony, Robert John told Oliver, “had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”
Peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns. What would it look like to live, entirely divorced from even the privilege of winning a Nobel Prize. It seems like Robert John estimated the prize very differently from most people; something else mattered to him more. Perhaps it was an understanding of ultimate things—what is the most important thing in life, what matters most, things we usually understand when death is nigh, when time is short.
Perhaps the Sabbath is like speed bumps, preventing life from being overrun by the train of time. It is a reminder to be conscious of time, like a balance by which everything is scaled against eternity. The things that exist in the Sabbath realm are the things that matter in eternity—they will always matter—like family, friends, love, reflection, peace with God and peace with self. Everything else can take a pause, irrelevant for one day.
I’m writing this at the entrance of a Sabbath. For the next 24 hours then, I’m going to live with consciousness of time.
 I’ll use their first names here to make the post more personal instead of academic.
 Read the whole interview with Robert John Aumann here.
What is learning? In How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler defines it concisely as the process by which a mind passes from understanding less to understanding more. Here, he employs the terms “learning” and “understanding” to refer to more than gaining new information, but also wisdom and insights on certain timeless truths. This learning is not identical to schooling, since it covers a greater time span than conventional schooling years–a lifetime.
A process from understanding less to understanding more implies that there is a certain inequality between the mind of the learner and the source of insight, at least at the beginning. (Since Adler is writing specifically about books, the source of insight is the mind of the book writer.) The writer must have something that can increase the learner’s understanding. Learning then is the closure of that gap such that the learner’s understanding approaches the author’s.
First, there is initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding, and his book must convey in readable form the insights he possesses and his potential readers lack. Second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree, seldom perhaps fully, but always approaching equality with the writer… In short, we can learn only from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them.
Following this premise, a book that is completely understandable to a reader–meaning its intelligibility is equal to the reader–cannot enhance the reader’s understanding.
There is the book; and here is your mind. As you go through the pages, either you understand perfectly everything the author has to say or you do not. If you do, you may have gained information, but you could not have increased your understanding. If the book is completely intelligible to you from start to finish, then the author and you are as two minds in the same mold. The symbols on the page merely express the common understanding you had before you met.
If that initial inequality between two minds is needed, then a learner must first get to that stage of awareness before learning can happen. She must know that she understands less that she should or would like. How does one get to this place?
One way is another person telling her that she needs to learn, like in the case of a child when her parents tell her why she needs to go to school. Another way, among many others, is by an encounter with a piece of information or a situation that awakens her interest and curiosity.
This awareness, though, is more than factual, because it takes a degree of humility and curiosity to go from knowing that she needs more understanding, to admitting it, to subjecting herself willingly to another mind. It is not uncommon to refuse to understand something one doesn’t care about.
Yet another aspect to this learning dynamic, a twin to the concept of humility, is admiration–the first lowering oneself, and the other exalting another person. Take the case of a man who thinks he’s superior than anyone else, and has no need that anyone should teach him. Factually, many are more enlightened than him, though maybe not all, but in some subjects. But because of his perception, he exempts himself from the need to learn from others. It’s hard to learn from someone you don’t respect and admire.
In this sense, learning is not simply a mental operation, it is also relational. The learner must always think that someone must have something better.
The Role of Awe
Take away admiration and there will be no learning. Interestingly, there’s much emphasis on critical thinking as the substance of intelligence in modern education, rightly so, because it is very important to examine the truthfulness of any knowledge that we encounter. But this is not the only mode of learning. In critical thinking, one is comparing what she perceives to the principles that already exist in her mind. The subject matter is being examined in a framework, and that framework must have already been in place. It requires the presence of other knowledge in the mind and thus cannot be the beginning of learning. The question then is, How did that first knowledge get in?
In his insightful book, Man is Not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that awe is necessarily the beginning of knowledge.
Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties–with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to out concepts, through the second we seek to adapt out minds to the world. Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.
Again, Heschel describes the difference between learning by awe and learning by critical thinking.
Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all… Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts… When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.
The first instances of learning, when the learner is subjected to such wonder that she is filter-less and ready to receive whatever comes, take place because of awe and admiration. Much of this happens to us during childhood, where everything was a wonder. Yet is that the only period when this can take place? Are we to abandon this mode of learning as adults? If we were to commit to a life of learning, the answer to this question must be No.
Esteem Others as Better
Those familiar with religious literature would perhaps be familiar with this injunction:
…in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Phil 2:3
There’s much wisdom in this exhortation, especially in the context of learning as a lifestyle. If learning were to be a livelong pursuit, then a continual attitude of humility is required, since one must always seek to recognize what she hasn’t understood yet. She needs to retain awe and admiration in life, to find her “betters” and learn from them.
This attitude says that one can learn from every single person, though younger, less experienced, no matter their status or cultures in society. It’s not blind admiration, but a mentality to glean wisdom from all circumstances.
The person that admires the most, I think, learns the most. My recommendation to you, then, thinkers, is to carve out space and time for wonder, awe, and admiration in your learning journey.