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Measuring gravitational waves from across the universe.
Southern bumpkin middle schoolers are on a field trip to see one of the most advanced scientific endeavors in human history.
Four total miles of underground laser tunnels were built in Livingston, LA, specifically for its quality of not having too much going on.
It’s called LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory).
You see, these sensors are trying to detect gravitational waves from the other side of the universe. By the time they get to us, they jiggle one of the two-mile laser beams only a thousandth of the length of a proton. So, you have to isolate your lasers from earthquakes, traffic, and any other sources of "noise." That’s why it ends up in a very unlikely place – God-fearing, small-town Louisiana.
This is God’s Laser, son.
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We weren't aware of this cosmic drama. Mostly, we were just happy to be out of the classroom for a day. We attend a small private school in a two-hundred-year-old building that used to be a Civil War hospital. Here’s a photo:
Contrast that with the temple of scientific achievement we were witnessing:
The religious devotion of the LIGO scientists radiated through the glass and infected my little head. I experienced skin-tightening awe, like when I stumbled upon a cathedral somewhere in rural France.
We entered the main room where the two massive vacuum pipes that house the 4-kilometer-long lasers met. Here, one day, they would measure those gravitational waves that could teach us something about the origins of our universe.
"Are y'all just tryin' to disprove God?" one of my classmates blurted out in a thick Southern accent. The rest of the class (and even some of my teachers) laughed smugly as if that was “checkmate” for these eggheads. I felt incredibly embarrassed.
The scientist giving the tour was a middle-aged man from MIT. He seemed surprised by the question, then disappointed. "No," he explained. "This is to learn more about the universe we find ourselves in."
I wanted to be more like that guy.
A few years later, I sat in the Civil War school’s auditorium, listening to a lecture about God. In my head: Click. I didn't believe in God. Suddenly, religion, in my arrogant 16-year-old mind, is a place idiots go so they don’t need to think. Here’s a photo of the actual room that moment took place:
If you wanted to make a Marvel movie about my life (I don’t recommend it), these would be good opening scenes. It sets the stage nicely for the next 20 years.
For the next decade, I was a "rational" atheist. I thought I was pretty clever.
But, after a while, I noticed my life felt pretty meaningless. If the only value there was to my existence was "smartness," then I was in serious trouble because sometimes, late at night, I realized I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was.
To try to soothe the issue, I stumbled my way through all the usual semi-religions: New Age books, Eastern philosophy, meditation, post modern irony, and, secretly, self-help.
What all of these things had in common was they pointed to something higher. What was “higher” was different in each case, and sometimes in conflict. Money, fame, enlightenment, absurdity, love.
Through all the noise, I kept hearing a small, consistent signal. Something all these worldviews had in common — narrative.
Reality is narrative
Intense religious experiences (mostly psychedelic trips to hell in Airbnbs, to be honest) helped me break the hypnosis that the world was only “reasonably” understood as composed of measurable matter.
The world, as I’ve tried to describe here and there, is made of stories. The fact these stories have the same structure around the world (the Monomyth) points to their deep universality. They are real. They are built into our biology.
Then, I asked myself, “Which stories are the most real?” The deepest stories are, by definition, religious.
I realized that whatever your deepest held myth is — that’s your religion. For some people it’s fame — for others it’s love. But everyone has one. What was mine?
Through the back door, I started to become spiritual – maybe even religious? – again. How funny. That’s when I realized the LIGO scientists were the most devout monks I ever encountered. To demean their work as trying to "disprove" God is so much smaller-minded than I even realized that all I can do is laugh at it now.
When I was a teenager, I thought science and religion were total opposites. When I saw “traditional” religion fail in certain ways, I wanted to cross the fence and never look back. But the more I learned about the history, the more confused I got. Are these forces really separate?
Since the beginning of this whole "scientific" project about 500 years ago (which, considering how long humans have been around, is incredibly recent), we have been trying to square the circle of our subjective perceptions with our measurements of nature. The books of the Torah are "true" in the experiential sense (the stories are reflections of subjective being), but they are sometimes not true in the scientific sense (the world is not literally 6,000 years old). The cold hard facts of nature don't always align with the parables.
In response to this mismatch, you have two sides making similar simple-minded errors. The fundamental religious types claim that their stories are scientifically true — which is just obviously not the case. And the atheist types claim that the religious stories are useless, random, and superstitious — which is equally idiotic and unsupported by the evidence. Both errors took me years to square in my personal life.
You don’t judge a dream by its logic. You try to understand what it means.
Basically, the myths gave rise to the motivation to do science at all. But it’s even deeper and weirder than that.
The phony feud of science and religion
Despite what we’ve been told, science and religion were historically not at odds.
Nietzsche pointed out that the discipline of devout religious thinkers in Europe made the Enlightenment (the beginnings of what we know as science) possible. Without a framework that says "the diligent pursuit of truth will redeem you," you would never find a bald ape spending 40 years of his life sorting out different types of beetle. And yet, thanks to that underlying religious structure, people do that. When you take a step back, it's easier to see it as religious devotion.
Hell, I can even reflect on what it felt like to be interested in astronomy as a kid. It was a spiritual experience of wonder – not a factual analysis. Religious fervor is what I sensed at LIGO. They believed that if sacrifices of their time and attention were made, the truth would reveal itself and redeem all of mankind. That’s literally awesome.
You can still see echos of this today.
The scientist in the video below helped discovered the gravitational waves in 2015. He used words like "dreams" and "vision." Like a monk, he wouldn’t allow himself to celebrate for a full week. He remained stoic for the tiny chance it was a false reading. He even laid out his theory for "evil" by explaining how someone might try to fake the findings to help boost their career.
People in the comments say he "deserves everything he makes." See, we don’t have to be told any of this. We all understand, deep down, the scientific endeavor is an extension of the religious ground from which it was born. We automatically admire (worship) those “saints” who most closely embody the ideal.
Scientists often don't know (because it's mostly subconscious) that what motivates our search for the truth is a structure of a very hard-won myth. We’re sitting on the shoulders of giants, convinced we can fly. And, sometimes, you have to learn the hard way that you’re not actually flying. You see hints of this “falling” with the increasing willingness for researchers to bend the truth for political or monetary gain, for example. Erik Hoel wrote about some recent drama around falsifying data. Science has been in a replication crisis for a decade now.
On the other extreme, Christian fundamentalists ignore the findings of science, which, ironically, were thanks to the lifelong efforts of the world’s most devout “monks.”
We were wrong, both coming and going. Turns out, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Inspiration demands tension
You’re supposed to productively push against the opposing perspective, not try to destroy it.
Like every sitcom about zany opposites, enduring the tension results in something greater than either could be on their own. In the scientific world, this is called opponent processing.
This is how the left and right hemispheres of your brain operate.
In other words, there is no way to codify a myth, nor can you hammer in a nail by praying about it. You need some combination of both mindsets. The amount you need of each is always emerging and never cut and dry.
Galileo, for example, looked through a telescope and noticed that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun. Heresy! according to the church. What we forget is that the church funded his exploration in the first place. But, they couldn't just blindly accept the story of whatever he happens to measure – even if it is more “correct.” Catholicism is a slow, lumbering mythological structure. It had to “catch up” to the shocking discovery that God’s Green Earth isn’t the center of the universe.
That “barbaric” instinct to shun (or torture) heretics, while often awful and destructive, protected us from the very real “Death of God.” Nietzsche (rightly) predicted that the diminishment of religion in the face of powerful scientific discoveries (and the subsequent “worship” of science) would cause the death of millions. Eugenics, for example, seen in America and Nazi Germany in the early 20th century, was a “myth,” substantiated by genetics, which motivated many killers.
As Nietzsche warned us, nihilism is the inevitable outcome when cold science becomes the most powerful myth.
On the other hand, the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics indicates that we each are the center of the universe in some strange way. The genius physicist John Wheeler (who worked on the Manhattan Project) believed that your consciousness helped create reality. This metaphor suggests we hold a divine place at the center of creation. But, no. This view is cynically deemed “pseudoscience” and only discussed in highly “woo” circles.
It’s unfortunate, but understandable. Human psychology is biased toward negativity. Just like in our personal lives, we can become conscious of this negativity bias and actively adjust for it – but it’s a fact of our nature.
As new scientific discoveries are made, we have to do the work of integrating the positive meaning of the finding into the myths of our culture. That sounds abstract, but that’s exactly what people like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman were doing. And we love it.
Just listen to the man. Obviously, what Sagan was compelled to express was a sense of religious beauty he personally found in the scientific world.
“Prophets” like Sagan update the old myths for the modern mind.
It’s an ever-needed job because we can have deadly myths or awe-inspiring myths – but there is no humanity without myths. Of course, that doesn't mean denying new ideas or being superstitious. In fact, the opposite. The core religious idea of the West is that "the truth will set you free." Truth in service of love.
That myth motivated people to create the unlikely world of airplane travel and big lasers.
But, when we take our positive myths for granted, they become invisible to us. Like in a dream, we find ourselves in the middle of the action, not remembering exactly how we ended up here. When that happens, we tend to dismiss the “love” part as silly (being biased toward negativity and all). What takes its place is cynicism and power-seeking. Truth quickly dissolves too as we become willing to do anything to get to the top of the heap. The dream becomes a nightmare.
We carelessly undo what was so hard won by our mythologically-inclined forbearers at our extreme peril. That’s playing out right now in our culture — irony and “deconstruction” is cooler than creation.
There’s only one way to stop it. And it’s not being dismissive toward “irrational” people who still cherish (usually without the verbal ability to explain themselves) the myths that hold up our society. Nor is it converting all scientists to religious fundamentalists.
It’s firmly neither and both.
The creativity gap
Science and myth – logos and mythos – are the two hemispheres of our collective mind. Whatever we have achieved as a species is because of their interplay, not despite it. To work well, they need to struggle against one another with a mutual sense of respect. They can (and do) create things we could never dream of otherwise.
That unresolved feeling (a Creativity Gap, if you will) is not something to “fix.” It is exactly what drives humanity to give rise to completely improbable and beautiful things – like God’s Laser proving Einsteins theory true, 100 years later.
Here’s what two black holes merging from all the way across the universe sounds like, by the way:
Thanks for reading,