Knowing something about everything

by Shane L. Larson

During the early 1970’s, a yellow cab crawled up Park Avenue in New York City. By all accounts, this was an innocuous happenstance, repeated thousands of times a day before and since.  But this cab ride was special, because it gave rise to one of the greatest treaties in human history, the so-called “Park Avenue Treaty.” The signatories were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who agreed that Asimov was required to insist that Clarke was the best science fiction writer in the world (reserving second best for himself), while Clarke was required to insist that Asimov was the best science writer in the world (reserving second best for himself).  The treaty was famously referred to by Clarke in the dedication to his novel, Report on Planet Three, which read “In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science-fiction writer”.

Arthur C. Clarke (left) and Isaac Asimov (right), the signatories of the Park Avenue Treaty.

The treaty is indicative of one of lost truths of those by-gone days — Asimov was widely regarded as one of the finest communicators of science, though he is most often remembered for his science fiction (if you haven’t read the original Foundation Trilogy, stop reading this now and go find a copy; this blog post will be here when you get back).  He became a proficient and popular science writer in the years after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, when there was widespread concern about the “science gap” between Americans and the rest of the world (an earlier incarnation of the current growing science gap in our country).  Asimov’s writings were wide ranging, accessible to broad audiences, and enormously popular. Kurt Vonnegut once famously asked Asimov how it felt to know everything.  Asimov replied that he was uneasy with his reputation for omniscience.

Despite his play at modesty, Asimov’s reputation was not ill-deserved.  He was, by all accounts, a polymath — a person whose intellect and expertise span a vast number of areas in the entire body of human knowledge. There have been many polymaths throughout history, many of their names are well known in our popular culture.  Perhaps the most famous, was Leonardo da Vinci, widely regarded as one of the finest mechanical geniuses and artists who has ever lived. Apprenticed as a young boy to the artist Verrocchio in Firenze, Leonardo was immersed and trained in artistic and technical skills of the day: drafting, metalwork, drawing, sculpting, and painting.  Leonardo’s skill manifested itself even at this early age.  Anecdotal stories tell that when he began painting under the tutelage of Verrocchio, the young Leonardo’s skill was so great that Verrocchio swore to never paint again.  In his life, Leonardo produced stunning works of art that have survived and are revered today — the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man.  One of my favorites works is the first sketch that we are certain is a work of Leonardo, of the Arno Valley from 1473. It is a simple line sketch that somehow captures the effervescent beauty of that far away Italian countryside, though I have never been there.

“Study of a Tuscan Landscape.” This sketch of the Arno Valley is the oldest known work of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the young Leonardo sitting on a grassy hillside, his pen and paper in hand, recording the image of his home in quick lines and shades. As the shape of the Arno Valley emerged and the walls of the Castle Montelupo sprang up on the page, his mind must have wandered in the fertile ground of imagination, exploring new seeds and thoughts planted by the sun and the landscape. Leonardo was not one to let seeds go untended. His genius and creativity are well known, spawning not only some of the most famous works of art in western culture, but also straying to ideas about flight and helicopters, harnessing the Sun’s energy by concentrating it, and the possibility that the Earth’s surface moved (something geologists today call plate-tectonics). No topic was too mundane, nor of little interest to Leonardo. He was a true polymath.

It is a funny fact of human nature that we discourage the behaviour that we so often value.  Polymaths dominate the ranks of the most revered scientists of all time: Leonardo, Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Feynman, Dyson. But in academic circles, polymathism is discouraged. University professors are often encouraged to be narrow minded, to focus their attention and efforts in narrow back-waters of science so they are the world’s single expert in very rigidly defined and narrow boxes of knowledge.  Somewhat surprisingly then, the most awesome applications of human imagination to science are efforts that are highly interdisciplinary, requiring expertise from hundreds of scientists in an astonishing variety of fields.

Approximately a hour to the west of Vinci, on the outskirts of Pisa, one of the greatest miracles of the modern age is taking shape.  Astronomers and physicists, in collaboration with computer scientists and engineers and laser technologists, are constructing an enormous, multi-kilometer long laser interferometer called Virgo (  A similar, but smaller observatory called Geo has been constructed in the farmlands outside of Hannover, Germany (  The Japanese are constructing another facility called Karga underground at the famed Kamioka Observatory in western Japan.  Two larger observatories have also been built in the United States, called LIGO — one in the high desert of eastern Washington near the Hanford Reservation (, and one in the verdant cypress forests of Louisiana near Livingston (

These massive scientific instruments are the cousins of interferometers that have been used in physics laboratories for the past century, simply enlarged by a factor of 4000 and instrumented with state of the art lasers, seismic isolation systems, the world’s largest vacuum system, 30,000 environmental sensors and one of the most powerful linked computer networks ever created for scientific analysis.  The goal is to detect one of the holy grails of physics: gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are a completely new way of looking at the Universe, not with light, but with gravity.  Virtually everything you know about the Cosmos — everything you’ve ever been taught, everything you’ve ever read in a textbook or seen on the news, has been discovered with light using telescopes.

The Hubble Space Telescope (left) extends our vision deep into the Cosmos, providing views like this one of the Carina Nebula (right), showing us a secret birthplace of stars.

It is a time honored tradition that has passed down to us from another great polymath, Galileo Galilei who built the first telescope in 1609 and wrote about his experiences the following year in the celebrated Sidereus Nuncius (”The Starry Messenger”).  The descendants of that first modest spyglass are simple telescopes you might use in your backyard, as well as the Hubble Space Telescope.  The telescope has taught us much about the Cosmos and our place in it.  But there are new frontiers to be explored by changing our perspective.  The detection of gravitational waves will revolutionize our understanding of compact astrophysical systems. We will be able to directly probe the interior structure of neutron stars (the densest objects known) as they tear themselves apart in titanic collisions; we will watch black holes merge and ringdown, revealing their size and spin; we will see stars plummeting in chaotic spiraling orbits around black holes that will map out the gravitational field to reveal the structure and shape of the hole.  And, if we are lucky, we may even detect the faint echoes of gravitational waves from the Big Bang, whispers across time from an era 400,000 years earlier than any ordinary telescope will ever be able to see.

It was Einstein himself who discovered the idea of gravitational waves in 1916, but he almost immediately discarded the notion of detecting them because the physical effect that has to be measured was, in his estimation, beyond our abilities. Fast-forward to the modern era, and technology has changed.  Not just a single technology, but many technologies.  The instruments we build to detect gravitational waves are a complex synthesis of ideas requiring people of broad mind and discipline.

The enormous arms of these interferometers had to be laid out by our best construction contractors, because the arms are long enough that the curvature of the Earth matters!  The 1 meter diameter vacuum pipes had to be manufactured then spiral welded without any leaks or cracks over the entire 4 kilometers of the instrument arm.  Thermal engineers had to design expansion baffles on the beamtubes that contract and expand with the heating and cooling of the arms with the rising and setting of the Sun. Seismologists and meteorologists and electrical engineers had to create a network of some 30,000 environmental sensors that monitor and report on the health and environment of the observatory.  Exquisite isolation engineers had to build suspension systems capable of filtering out vibrations from everything — people walking down the hall, the echoing tremors of ground motion on the other side of the world, and the rumble of car tires on a highway ten miles away.  Computer scientists and network engineers have designed a computing and data acquisition system that has thousands of individual links, stores and processes data, and delivers that data to a collaboration of nearly 1000 scientists spread around the world.  Master optical engineers and laser physicists have built a laser injection and control system that takes as input a single infrared laser beam, circulates it over 1600 kilometers during 400 trips up and down the vacuum beam line, and brings the laser light all back together to measure minuscule changes in distances that herald the arrival of gravitational wave signals from remote corners of the Cosmos.

LIGO is an awesome machine, whether you are looking down one of the 4 km arms (left), or staring into the guts of the computer system interlinking the instrument and all of its vast sensor network (right).

Standing at the vertex of one of these great instruments, staring down the arm to the distant end stations 4 kilometers away, it is easy to be amazed by the ingenuity of our scientists and engineers — large teams who have butted heads, argued, designed, tested, and ultimately built the most sensitive scientific instruments our species has ever created.  A pool of talented people who had the where-with-all to imagine every possible problem that might be encountered along the way and design a solution.  Talented people who encountered unforeseen problems, ferreted out the cause of the trouble, then built a solution that allowed us to continue down the long road toward discovery.  These great machines, and ultimately the discoveries we make with them, are a testament to their dedication and perseverance, a legacy as great as that of Newton, and Huygens, and Leonardo.  We polymathed our way to these instruments, not through the intellect of a single person, but through the linked abilities of a vast team of people spanning multiple decades of work.  As a result of those efforts, we find ourselves poised on the brink of discovery: breathless with anticipation, and rightfully proud of our accomplishment.

The LIGO-Hanford interferometer, seen from the air.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, one can’t help but be overwhelmed by two things. The first is the awe-inspiring example of what we can engineer through sheer ingenuity and perseverance. Instruments like LIGO will fundamentally change the way we view the Cosmos, pushing us to look beyond the simple prejudices imposed by the limitations of our physical senses and listen to the grandeur of a Universal symphony we’ve never been able to hear before. The second is that this machine is only the beginning of so much more than just astrophysics. New technology and new insights always flow back to society and are used in startling and unexpected ways, propelling our young species forward. This was true with Apollo, and as many others have pointed out, is true for LIGO.  The LIGO laser technology is already making its way into the carbon composites industry where it is being used to test aircraft parts. Einstein@Home (like it’s big sister, Seti@Home) was one of the first projects to use your home computer to do scientific crowd-computing while your computer was sitting idle during Monday Night Football, turning the world into a vast supercomputer. LIGO’s advanced laser control systems are demonstrating the precise methods needed to shape and control lasers in applications ranging from laser welding, to high precision laser cutting systems, to advanced laser weapon systems.  None of this was intended, but it all sprang from the same fertile ground — the seeds of ideas planted and nurtured from an exquisite mix of ideas stirred together with reckless abandon.  Polymathism in the large.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, the joy in our accomplishment is pierced by an unerring certainty that we should be doing more of this.  We need more polymathism in the world, on scales both large and small.  We should unfetter our young scientists, and let their minds stray to the far reaches of wonderfully crazy ideas and fantastic imaginings about what our future could be.  It is hard to imagine that good things can and will result from allowing such freedom, particularly in trying times of economic woe and political discord.  It is even harder for the vanguard of scientific leaders (the “greybeards”, as I call them) to encourage big expansive thinking among our young scientists when the great discoveries could easily overshadow our own seemingly meager contributions to the state of human knowledge; the egos of scientists (despite their outward bravado) are fragile. But that doesn’t change the fact that we need more polymaths, not just to inspire us by charging down the frontiers of discovery, but to address serious problems with new and creative connections and solutions that narrow box thinking will never discover.  The world has serious problems, and we need creative thinking to address those problems.

Standing at the vertex of LIGO, staring down the arm, I wonder what Leonardo would have thought if he was right here with me?  I can imagine him sitting here next to me, with a parchment and a pen in hand, sketching the long lines of LIGO’s arm, the scrub desert of eastern Washington and the distant shadow of Rattlesnake Mountain, and my mind strays into imagination, wondering all the things that could be.


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