Yes, I know that identifies me as a science nerd. No, I don't care. I just can't fathom how you wouldn't find it fascinating to comprehend a little more about the way the universe works.
This comes up because of an article by Jake Parks I ran into a couple of days ago over at the site Astronomy, called, "Star is Confirmed Single and Ready to Test Einstein’s Theory." Despite the sound of the title, this has nothing to do with a nice-looking young Hollywood actor who is ready to go out on the dating circuit. It's about a confirmation of a corollary of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity -- the idea of gravitational redshift.
The idea here is that the presence of a massive object actually warps the fabric of space -- stretches it in rather the same fashion that a bowling ball would depress the surface of a trampoline. This, in fact, is what gravity really is; the fact that the Earth travels in an elliptical orbit around the Sun is because the Sun's enormous mass bends space, and the Earth travels along the lines of that curvature. (Picture someone rolling a marble toward the bowling-ball-on-a-trampoline I referenced earlier for a two-dimensional analog.)
[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]
It's never been observed before -- but astronomers have a good chance of observing it in a few months. A star called S0-2 is going to be making a pass in front of Sagittarius A, the supermassive black hole at our galaxy's center. As the star moves between us and the black hole, its light should be significantly redshifted -- a finding that would be a major win for Einstein's theory.
"It will be the first measurement of its kind,” said Tuan Do, deputy director of the Galactic Center Group, who co-authored the study. "Gravity is the least well-tested of the forces of nature. Einstein’s theory has passed all other tests with flying colors so far, so if there are deviations measured, it would certainly raise lots of questions about the nature of gravity!"
It was recently proven that S0-2 is not a binary (double) star system -- an important bit of information, as if it had been, it would have significantly complicated the possibility of observing the predicted redshift.
"We have been waiting 16 years for this," said Devin Chu, study co-author and graduate student of astronomy at UCLA. "We are anxious to see how the star will behave under the black hole’s violent pull. Will S0-2 follow Einstein’s theory? Or will the star defy our current laws of physics? We will soon find out!"
Can't you just hear the excitement in his voice?
I can already hear the naysayers as well, though -- how much money is being put into this research? What useful outcome will it generate? I don't know the answer to the first question, and I don't much care; but the answer to the second is, "we don't know yet -- and that's the point."
There are hundreds of discoveries that were made by scientists doing basic research -- what might appear to the layperson as simple messing around with something that interested them. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Henri Becquerel was investigating the effects of phosphorescent minerals on photographic plates in his lab, and used a rock to weight down some plates wrapped in black paper. When he developed the plates, they had a smudge in the middle, as if they'd been exposed to light, which was impossible. Turns out the rock was uranium ore. The result was that he'd just discovered radioactivity.
- Roy J. Plunkett was experimenting with some chlorofluorocarbon gases he thought might have a use as coolants. One of his formulations didn't work so well, but condensed out into a solid film on the inside of the container. He examined it, and found that it had a very low coefficient of friction, and that water and other substances seemed not to adhere to it. He named it "Teflon."
- George Beadle and Edward Tatum were studying something few of us would find interesting -- metabolic pathways in a mold species called Neurospora. They found that there were varieties of the mold that seemed to be unable to metabolize certain nutrients, a finding that was mystifying until they proposed that these varieties were missing a key enzyme. They made the guess that those enzymes were missing because there was a defect in a specific gene -- and that's how a study of mold led to the "One Gene, One Protein" model of gene expression.
- Harry Coover was trying to find a new material to use in making the lenses in plastic gun sights. He was working with a group of chemicals called cyanoacrylates, but found that they were too sticky to be useful in lens making. One of them, though, struck him as being useful for something else. He sold the patent to Kodak. They named it "SuperGlue."
- In the early 1990s, some researchers at Pfizer were working with a compound called UK92480, which showed promise for opening up blood vessels in patients with angina pectoris. It worked okay, but the researchers' ears perked up when male test subjects noted an unusual side effect of taking the compound. They patented it under the trade name "Viagra," which has brought great happiness, lo unto this very day.
And so on and so forth. My point is, we need to be doing basic research. No, the gravitational redshift experiment might not ever amount to anything practical. But then again, it might. The point is, we don't know, and if we limit research to things we already expect are going to be useful, it's going to hobble science -- and rob us of the next generation of serendipitous discoveries.
Besides, there's a value simply in knowing. We are at a point in our civilization where we have the technology and insight to unravel the deep secrets of the universe, and it's worthwhile doing that for its own sake. The inspiration and joy we get from understanding one more bit of the world we live in is a worthwhile end in and of itself. As the eminent astronomer Carl Sagan put it: "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."