You can’t see them. You can’t feel them, or touch them, or taste them. But evidently, gravity waves are real.
Which once again, proves that Mr. Einstein was quite a smart, prescient fellow indeed. Recent observations and conclusions made by a coalition of scientists, analyzing data from large observatories such as you see above, in Livingston, La., confirm the phenomenon of gravity waves. In terms of large scale physics experiments, it doesn’t get any bigger than this. The science world and physicists everywhere have been breathing heavily and rapturously over this newfound data.
Photographically speaking, I was breathing heavily as well, when I went to the LIGO observatory out in the boonies of Louisiana. Out of desperation. I was confronted with a gray, cement tunnel in the woods. And my editor at National Geographic told me to make an interesting picture of it.
I tried a couple of things, out there in that misty woods.
But they fell short of what might be described as interesting. I had my sights set on an ambitious shot, which in retrospect I realize had way too many moving parts. I had the quixotic urge to light paint this tunnel, which took so long my film encountered a reciprocity failure of massive proportions. Which was appropriate I guess, given my subject matter. Photographically speaking, my first attempt at LIGO was a black hole.
My dear friend Bill Douthitt, who was my editor at NGS at the time, peered at me disapprovingly after reviewing said failure, and I got sent back to the deep dark woods of Louisiana. (You sort of feel like Frodo, on these occasions, looking at the Wizard. “What must I do?” Though as a freelance photog, being sent out into the wilds, you are always aware that you are a fellowship of exactly one, and the onus is on you. “You don’t drop that goddam troublesome ring into the river of lava, mister, you’ll never work here again!”) Having gone to school on my first attempt, I did have a semblance of a notion, involving a double exposure, the rental mini-van, some black paper, and some bicycle lights. (I have written of this before.)
Inside that tunnel, there are lasers. Minute variations in these beams can signify the passing through of a gravity wave, in very rough terms. So, I thought…laser beams. Waves. Next thing you know I was wrapping the rental vehicle in black duvetyne paper and attaching six red bicycle lights to the backside of it, in a diagonal pattern. I covered the headlights in red gels as well. I laid down a first exposure on several cameras, with tungsten film, just on the edge of dusk. Man, it would have been cool to have the fancy digital machinery of today back then, on a job like this!
I waited for complete darkness, which in the hinterlands of Louisiana, is quite complete, and dense. Then, for the second round of exposure, on the same pieces of film inside those various cameras, the assistant slowly drove the min-van in a wave pattern along the length of the tunnel–all the way. Damned if it didn’t work. Brought it back to the Geographic, and they ran it as a two page spread, which meant the mighty titans atop the mountain inside the mysterious land of the yellow borders were well pleased with the humble offerings of the petititioning freelancer. (I wax poetic here. I’m referring to the ninth floor of the Geographic building at 17th & M in DC, where the top editors resided at the time, cushily ensconsed in wood paneling and leather chairs, surrounded by colorful tokens and memorabilia from the far and wide reaches of an earth they rarely actually visit anymore.)
They looked upon it, and said it was good. My life as a photog was validated yet again, albeit temporarily, as there is always the matter of the next assignment. More tk….