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Big Oil turns a LIGO-Virgo sensor into a much more economic gadget to search for oil

On one hand, LIGO's detection of the gravitational wave looks like an achievement that may only please the heart of a staunch theorist.

On the other hand, as an ad said, the fuels that produce CO2 (carbon dioxide) have freed us from a world of back-breaking labor, lighting up our lives, allowing us to create and move the things we need, the people we love.

The slogan "Aby váš motor lépe Shell" ("for your motor to go well") is one of the most catchy corporate slogans in Czech that cleverly use the brand as a Czech word ("šel" pronounced just like "Shell" means "went" or "would go" in the third person, singular, past tense).

A fresh Bloomberg story,

Einstein Never Knew He’d Help Shell Discover Oil
pointed out by Matt Strassler is the newest example of a "spinoff from fundamental science". LIGO isn't as detached from reality as it might have been.

You know, the technology needed to to measure the length of a piece of Earth with the relative accuracy of \(10^{-21}\) simply is amazing – and amazing not only for a theorist. It is bound to be useful for many practical applications, too.

As the Bloomberg story tells us, the story of this particular sensor started rather recently, in 2006, exactly when the "back breaking labor" ad was released. A Dutch astrophysicist Johannes van den Brand joined the search for the gravitational waves. He convinced another guy Mark Beker, a half-Dutch New Zealalder, to write a thesis and do research on seismicity and gravitational waves.

As a result, LIGO became able to remove the seismic effect from the signal – extremely accurately. The relevant sensor is named "Innoseis".

What a surprise, Shell, a big oil company, noticed and starts to think that that these sensors could be great in the search for new fossil fuels. One advantage over the existing gadgets is obvious: Shell needs about 100,000 sensors right now and the mass of each is 5 kilograms or so. 500 tons of these sensors have to be deployed in a similar search.

The "Innoseis" sensors can do the same job but their mass is 10 times as low, namely 500 grams.

It's not hard to see that one billion dollars that has been invested to LIGO so far could return very quickly. The money for the pure scientific research is ultimately tiny relatively to the profits of the important industries of the world economy or the largest companies.

You could ask a question that is relevant in all these discussions about spinoffs:

Why didn't Shell construct smaller sensors right away? You know, I think that the answer is that a "huge improvement" looked far-fetched to those who decide about such research in Shell and elsewhere. So they were using basically what was available. The funny thing about pure science – like science that cares about the gravitational waves for their own sake – is that it can often achieve things that look far-fetched at the beginning.

The scientific research is pushing the boundary of our knowledge everywhere where it's possible – whether these directions are practically useful right now or not – and sometimes it manages to push them really dramatically. In a subset of these dramatic improvements, it turns out that practical applications exist, after all, but the "commercial demand for this know-how" is only found when many people have enough time to look around.

Just to be sure, the amazing precision of LIGO looks far-fetched to many people even now, when LIGO has already detected two black hole mergers through gravitational waves. I regularly get new comments on this blog that say that it can't be possible to be this precise, it must be a hoax. Well, it is possible and I sometimes explain in more detail why. And the experimental physics task to make this precision possible had to remove noise from very many – in some sense, "all" relevant – sources.

So even if it were just one sensor that would be helpful, it would probably safely repay the investment into LIGO. But I believe that a person who is cultural simply must realize that it's extremely primitive and narrow-minded to cherry-pick aspects of the scientific research that are similar practical. It's exactly as cutting the nose from the Mona Lisa painting because the ink contains some useful chemical. Or a nice spice for your dinner. Mona Lisa has so much more than just the nose. And LIGO – and fundamental physics in general – brings so much more than the "Innoseis" sensor.

By the way, can't you think of another application of the extremely precise gadgets included in LIGO?

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