Making (gravitational) waves during Science Week

Alex Ford

TECHNICAL difficulties couldn’t suppress the Science Week enthusiasm at a virtual reality event at the Sale Library on Sunday.

While the nation-wide livestream wouldn’t connect, dozens of people, young and old, delighted in the simple VR tech, which used phones and a clever cardboard box as a window to tour the solar system.

The day focused on gravity waves — an intimidating topic — but approached with excitement in an accessible way.

Walking participants through the physics were ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (or OzGrav) astronomers Professor Alan Duffy and Dr Rebecca Allen, who explained how a pair of black holes spinning could produce strange effects on space and time, and how researchers were using lasers to detect these effects.

Stunning visuals from radio telescopes could be examined in 360 degrees, and viewers could peek into the labs making the discoveries.

As well as making research accessible, using virtual reality meant the latest findings could also be communicated quickly, according to OzGrav’s research coordinator Lisa Horsley.

“It’s being updated so quickly, with virtual reality we can push out new apps every week if we have to,” she said.

“Gravitational waves were only discovered in 2015, even though they were theorised in 1915 — in a hundred years, there’s so much going on.”

Getting young people involved was also a priority, with groups of children figuring out how to use the VR headsets a promising sign.

“We’re trying to make it as accessible as possible,” she said.

“Kids are naturally excited and interested and curious, but I know there’s a bit of hesitation for adults when you say science — maybe they didn’t have the greatest science teacher in high school.

“But I think there’s a lot of things shifting and there’s a lot more ways to find that fun science.

“It doesn’t have to be inherently boring and we’re always thinking of new ways to communicate and engage with it.”

While studying the invisible universe of radio waves and neutrinos sounds tough, most people had a grasp of the basics, like gravity and black holes.

“When you have two black holes, they enter this sort of death spiral, and as they’re losing energy, because it’s such a huge amount of mass that’s shifting in space — it’s actually stretching and squeezing space and time,” Ms Horsley explained.

“Those compressions are moving through the universe, it takes a long time to get here, but it’s on such a small scale.

“That’s something that I think people are struggling with, it’s the tiny scale of what we’re trying to detect, one ten-thousandth of an atom.

“People understand lasers and a little bit about gravity, so I feel there’s already enough general knowledge out there for us to build on it.”

Australian scientists are helping with the global effort to discover more about this fascinating part of the universe, with OzGrav one of several institutions across the world.

Ms Horsley said she hoped some of the youngsters would pick up an interest in science and try something new during Science Week.

“I know in the ‘60s, when we were going to launch a man to the Moon, that was really exciting for people at that time,” she said.

“We had a bit of a lull when people weren’t going to the moon, but now people are going to go to Mars in our lifetimes.

“Science Week is a great way to get involved in a lot of things and find the one you like.”

One parent, Cherry Wake, said it was definitely an exciting day — her partner as keen as her children to get exploring.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.

“The technology’s so simple, and the kids are loving it.

“It’s easy enough for them to navigate their way around, like a self-guided tour.”

More Science Week events were held at libraries across Wellington Shire this week.