When Groucho Marx said: “If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing something wrong,” he probably didn’t have Aiken resident and engineer, Steve Hand, specifically in mind. Nor was he likely referring to black holes, time warps, gravitational waves and fourth dimensions – or two-mile-long vacuum tubes, laser beams, 40 years of invention, creation, innovation, and supposition – or a long-anticipated, often doubted, once-in-a-lifetime, scientific breakthrough that, when converted to sound, was no more than a small, faint, “chirp” – perhaps as if it were one long, collective, exhaled breath that could be heard all over the globe.
But, according to Steve Hand, it was breathtakingly fun.
Steve Hand is one of countless collaborators from all around the world who has been devoted to this recent astronomy and physics achievement that’s been featured in world news this past week (although it actually happened last September). What occurred was the collision of two black holes, one absorbing the other, producing gravitational waves of a magnitude that vibrated a pair of specifically built antennas on earth waiting to record just such an event. These antennas are known as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory), with one located in Washington State, the other in Louisiana. And Steve was instrumental in their design and construction.
Because Steve lives in Aiken (and is the husband of a friend of mine, teacher Mindy Hand), I got to hear a personal account of the development of this amazing project. It originates, of course, with Einstein who theorized about gravitational waves a hundred years ago this year. But the effort to build the LIGO antennas began in earnest around 1996. Steve works for CB&I, a construction and engineering firm that was called in to begin the execution of a design developed by renowned physicist, Rai Weiss. Steve remembers that the main reason he was working for the firm in the first place was because of the weird and wonderful projects in which they were involved, even before the outerspace, fourth-dimension stuff.
I wish I could tell you all about the entire adventure Steve related to me. Like how much of it was making things up as they went along – including creating original tools for putting things together that had never existed before. And creating new sciences and original math to enable ideas that had never existed before. And the tales about cold desert nights in Washington State (yes, much of Washington is a desert) – ideally suited to the project because of its wide-open spaces – but perhaps less perfect due to its wide-open-spaces natives … like black widow spiders and field mice and highly curious coyotes (“we’d hear this breathing in the dark, turn on our flashlights, and we’d be surrounded by coyotes completely fascinated by what we were doing”). And Louisiana alligators – every bit as curious as the coyotes … and a tad more hungry. I loved the stories about the workers called “boilermakers” who refused to use the metric system (“they claimed it was un-American”), so precision measurements took on yet a new dimension of challenge. And how vacuums can only be made 29 inches at a time, because they have to be created by removing the molecules one at a time. And how Stephen Hawking himself actually bet against the success of the project – perhaps as an added motivator as much as his brand of humor. The stories about maintaining cleanrooms out in the field were impressive (“one fingerprint left behind in a vacuum tube would have taken 30 years to go away”). Even the basic methods of steam cleaning and welding had to be reinvented for their purposes.
But, for me, the most profound parts of the story were about the sharing of human knowledge and talent and vision. Steve talked about how, sitting out in the desert, the scientists would mesmerize the boilermakers with their explanations of black holes and the fabric of time and space being like a net that could stretch and fold in on itself – and about the power and size of the universe. At the same time, engineers and construction workers created whole new materials and methodologies to be able to implement the vision that the theorists could only imagine and put on paper in the language of numbers.
What I heard was a remarkable story about human collaboration and shared spirit at its finest and highest level. What Steve talked about was the joy of it all – the great, satisfying, fun it had been. Perhaps, in the end, the “chirp” that was heard around the world was more than a sound given to vibration and gravity in waves. Perhaps it was the very breath of God – the exhale of a spirit-filled laugh of approval.