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Gravitational waves, human genius and the wonder of making the unknown, known

A boy and a girl watch a screen picturing the moon at the museum of the science and technologies in Milan, Italy, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Scientists announced they have finally detected gravitational waves, the ripples in the fabric of space-time that Einstein predicted a century ago. The announcement has electrified the world of astronomy, and some have likened the breakthrough to the moment Galileo took up a telescope to look at the planets. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Luca Bruno/AP

Wonderment can exist without understanding – the transformative appeal of religion, sports and love all depend on feelings of rapture that aren't relentlessly analytical or intellectually complicated.

But the extreme wonder of the universe requires a heightened awareness. As beautiful as the night sky may be in aesthetic terms, its greatest glory unfolds over almost unimaginable distances of space and time, an awesomeness that can only be described through the rigorous genius of science.

How can we appreciate this thing we call the universe that dwarfs us into triviality and simultaneously spurs our curiosity to intellectual feats that demand their own wonderment? It takes a precious moment of discovery, one we can now experience thanks to physicists whose ground-based laser beams captured the instant a billion years ago when two black holes collided – and began sending news of their impact across the inattentive vastness of space and time.

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Humans may no longer be the centre of the things, but this is a still moment for human self-congratulation. We get to live in a world that for all of its flaws and shortcomings includes these rare people who search for the unseen movements of distant galaxies, testing the limits of comprehension in the most limitless realm possible.

The violent collision of the two black holes sent gravitational waves rippling across space a billion years ago. On Earth, a billion light years away, the signs of this impact have only just reached us. Scientists at two American laboratories had the power to detect the rippling movement of this long-ago moment, a barely discernible distortion of distance occupying a mere one-thousandth the width of an atomic nucleus, lasting just 2/100ths of a second.

The universe is 13.8 billion years old, and astronomers have been able to study the later stages of its unfolding by observing emissions of electromagnetic radiation – light in its various forms. But light can't be seen from the first, opaque 400,000 years of time. Now that gravitational waves dating back to the murky beginning of things have been captured, it becomes possible to observe the totality of existence in a new way – and how often can that be said?

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