The proof that Einstein was right when – a century ago – he produced his theory of general relativity, predicting – amongst other things – the existence of gravitational waves, is unlikely to change our outlook on the week ahead, or the one just passed, but ought it to?
Certainly, the physicists are not understating its significance as the biggest scientific discovery of the century. One professor has likened it to watching only one channel on the TV and then discovering that there were others with completely different programmes. Another said that it will give humanity a new “sixth sense”.
What we do now know is that 1.3 billion light years away (and a light year is 6 trillion miles, so we are looking at a distance of 6 000,000,000,000 x 1,030, 000,000,000 = 7, 800, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000, 000 miles) two massive objects spiralled into one another causing a storm in space, the waves from which just reached Earth after travelling, – by my reckoning – 1.4 billion years at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second).
Frankly, the numbers are just too big to comprehend, but that is the point: We ought to stop and wonder at our lack of comprehension, and consider our place in the universe, and – by comparison – how trivial some of our preoccupations might seem. It puts me in mind of that great favourite among hymns:
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder Consider the works thy hands hath made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee: How great thou art!
Similarly, when I was at School, above the science block entrance, were inscribed the words from the book of the prophet Micah “there are many things yet hid, for we have seen but a few of his works”.
This awe ought to arrest us and give us a proper sense of proportion. It did to me last week. I was giving a speech to a City audience about economic growth and I was agreeing with the Growth Commission which had said “economic growth can relieve humanity en masse from drudgery and poverty, nothing else ever has”. When, of course, it occurred to me that spiritual values like awesome wonder had often achieved exactly that. The Book of Common Prayer, for donkeys’ years was, and is, a relief from drudgery.
I’m not sure what the City economists and accountants made of it.