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CATCHING THE RIPPLES

The poets keep the banging and whimpering for the end of the world. It all began for them, naturally, with the Word. So, the creator becomes a sort of poet who spins, out of that first word, the story of creation. In that story, time and space, together with everything else that comes to exist in them, are literally spoken into being. Most religions agree with the poets, and find the end of the world more interesting to dwell on, and more conducive to frightening people into obedience, than the beginning. (Meditating too much on the Creation might inspire unmanageable acts of creativity in human beings, who might then start thinking of themselves as more than human.) Physicists and other, more ‘scientific’, historians of the Universe do it differently, and with less obvious hubris. For most of them, the bang happened at the beginning, and many of their theories and experiments are geared towards understanding that event — how it all began, rather than how it might end.

Anybody acquainted with the nature of human disappointment would know that a bang, however big at the beginning, does tend to turn into a whimper. But it appears that some scientists at the South Pole have actually ‘heard’ some of these whimpers. They claim to have caught, in a hypersensitive telescope, infinitesimal ripples in the fabric of time and space that are the attenuated residues of nothing less than the Big Bang. Being able to catch these ‘gravitational waves’ could start a whole new era in the history of trying to understand the Universe, using empirical data from a moment of time that is unprecedentedly close to the actual moment of the Universe’s birth. The language of knowledge tends to be caught up in metaphors derived from the senses, translating the detection of these microwaves into lay persons’ terms of seeing and hearing. But things are not that simple. The history of time is anything but brief, and the human mind has only just begun to confront what it means to think of time and space as a continuum, so that ‘long ago’ and ‘far away’ are not that distinct from each other when trying to fathom the history of the very medium in which human existence and consciousness cannot but situate themselves. The Big Bang must have happened somewhere, the untutored imagination would argue, and for something to have happened somewhere it had to have happened in some sort of time. “So, how could time, space and time-space have been brought into being by the Big Bang from nothing at all, for even nothing has to be the absence of something?” would be the next, commonsensical question to ask, as Milton’s Eve, with her curly hair and longing for fruit, might have done, after the angel gave her husband the official version of the Big Bang story.

So, for those, like Eve, for whom microwaves bring to mind nothing more momentous than last night’s pizza, what the capturing of these primordial ripples might mean, put in ordinary language, is that no event, however long ago and far away, ever quite stops happening and nothing is ever quite lost — provided human beings are clever enough to know where, and how, to look and listen.