The announcement of the first detection of stormy gravitational waves from a pair of black holes that merged over a billion years ago marks a very special place in human history. It is, of course, a supreme technological triumph and a remarkable verification of general relativity - a theory born from human curiosity and deep insight about the natural world. But as much as this moment is the start of a scientific revolution, it is also a point for critical self-examination.
Past accomplishments in our scientific pursuit for truths about the universe have included the detection of radio waves, gamma-rays, X-rays, ultraviolet light, infrared light, and many other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. We've also sensed neutrinos and high-energy cosmic rays, pure interplanetary magnetic fields, and straightforward gravitational fields.
Yet there's something that just feels different about gravitational waves; the rippling compression and stretching of space and time. It is as if we've succeeded in peering into the underworld, or under-verse. We've taken a step into the fundamental structure of reality, akin to peering through the great microscopes of particle accelerators, where fleeting subatomic components and forces reveal themselves. Somehow though, the character of this new realm is far more visceral. Perhaps it's because the ancient gravitational waves that passed through Earth in September 2015, and all those that have done so before, are not confined to a narrow tube in an experiment. Instead they're washing through us, our planet, and our solar system and tweaking the apparent bedrock of space and time in the process.
And now we've let ourselves into that secret room, where there are new mysteries to discover about the nature of the cosmos. Therefore it is conceivable that this capability marks an even greater turning point. A species that can make these measurements - that can even conceive of making these measurements - could be very special indeed. Have there been, will there be, or are there now, other intelligences in the universe that reach this juncture?
It's tempting to wonder if we might have put another brick on our path to cosmic greatness. Perhaps our species' next steps really do lie among the stars, or in a technologically brilliant future of artificial life and transcendence from our temporarily puny brains. A breathless and uplifting trajectory could await.
Except, there is a striking contradiction between that vision and the day-to-day state of our species.
Take a good hard look at us.
Huge numbers of humans are still impoverished, denied basic supplies like clean water or food, much less medicine and education, or happiness. Wars infect different regions of the planet. The nature of these conflicts may vary, but at their core they are all horrible, brutal, and indifferent to the needs of most civilians who end up suffering the consequences. Material and cultural wealth is spread so unevenly that we talk about the '1 percent' when we should probably actually talk about the '0.1 percent'. We're still racists, we're still misogynists, we're still looking to leaders who consistently fail us because, in truth, they're usually the last type of person who really deserves any power.
It may be that the human condition is actually the most puzzling aspect of this piece of the cosmos. It seems impossible that a species so hell bent on crawling over its own members for a place at the top of the heap could ever listen to the pulse of black hole mergers, or the thunder of distant supernova.
Yet we have managed to do precisely this. One depressing conclusion is that only such a driven and fierce species will take science and technology to this level. But there are other possibilities as well. Perhaps we are slowly crossing a threshold to a better place, and these are the last generations where survival of the few is favored. The scientific advances of the past hundred years could be signposts to that transition, where our tools will finally enable the whole species to be more equally supported.
Or, like imagining a colony of ants using their own bodies to build a structure to reach a drop of hanging nectar, we're always going to have moments amid the mayhem where we accomplish something great before collapsing for a while longer. And although that might continue while our planet offers a temporary buffer against our pollution and appetites, we're not progressing in any genuinely consistent way.
In all scenarios though, there seems to be no real disadvantage in having aspirations to learn about the nature of the universe around us, from molecules and genes to gravitational waves. We're clearly incapable at the moment of turning into some utopian, pastoral species, and we may never wind up becoming that. But turning our backs on exploration and curiosity is definitely not going to lead to paradise either.
And, perhaps most critically, we can find hope in these quests, and hope may be what finally lifts us to the stars.