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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Go, Go, LIGO!


The last time I was here in Richland, WA, I took the trusty time machine back 70 or so years and visited the B Reactor on the Hanford site.  I sat at the (non-functional) controls of the country’s first nuclear reactor; I stared into Fermi’s office; I looked up at the rods and rods and rods and rods that were used to make plutonium.  Good times, good times.

Last Friday, I took the time machine ahead, only a couple of years,to be sure, but that was far enough.  We ventured into a different part of the dessert to tour LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory).  The site isn’t much to look at.  It’s composed of a couple of buildings (nice landscaping, though) and two long,  l  o  n  g concrete tunnels.

[Insulating concrete tunnels housing the beam tubes.]
 
In those tunnels? Oh, my!  Inside those insulating tunnels are two tubes. The physicists shoot a laser beam from a central point which they split in two. The split beams shoot down the tubes, bounce off fancy, sophisticated mirrors and return. The light is collected, and the light waves measured.  The instrumentation will filter out -- are you ready for it? -- all the gravitational waves from the earth.   Yup, all the trees falling, the trains roaring, the planes flying, all will be filtered out, and only the gravitational waves of space will be recorded. 
 
And what, you ask, will that show?  Oh, my friends, it will show a star going nova, a black hole imploding, or even, maybe, the Big Bang. 
 
 
[The control room at LIGO where discoveries will be noted on these monitors:
or is it the control room of the Enterprise?  Warp speed ahead, Mr. Sulu!]      
 
And speaking of finding the Big Bang, this, right here in the tufts of scrub, in the shadow of the nuclear waste vitrification plant, this would be a great setting for an episode of the Big Bang Theory.  Can you see it?  Wallowitz and Kuthrapali lost with the lizards.  Leonard wandering through the B Reactor and Sheldon lost in the rat refuse of those long, concrete tunnels. 

Ain’t science grand?!

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