Phillip Wulf’s Gravity Journal – Day 1
Few things have I spent more time on than planning my retirement. First thing this morning five minutes after submitting the webform making my long awaited retirement official, I received a phone call from Professor Sheila Rowan who is the Director of the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) at the University of Glasgow and Chief Scientific Adviser for Scotland. I had been following Dr. Rowan and her work for quite sometime, but I had no idea she had been following me. She apologized in advance in her cordial Scottish brogue if she had interrupted anything important, but wondered if I would consider touring their Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford Washington. During my speechless pause, she said a car had been arranged to pick me and my wife up at our home — at our convenience, to deliver us to a charter jet waiting at Portland International Airport (PDX), a twenty-minute drive from our home in Vancouver, Washington. The compensation Professor Rowan offered me made the decision easy.
My wife Jianmin was furious that I had so easily abandoned my retirement, but warmed to the idea when I explained the travel arrangements and the check that was being transferred to our account as I spoke.
Jianmin is an amazing executive and organizer. She packed for both of us and shuttled our golden retriever Maria to our daughter’s house while I reviewed everything I knew about LIGO and gravitational waves in general. I had not realized just how much information regarding the subject I had already curated on my cloud knowledge base. I closed my MacBook Pro about the time the doorbell rang.
A tall fit pleasant young man with cropped black hair in his early thirties dressed in impeccable black pressed trousers, white shirt, tie, and blazer smiled and addressed himself.
“Good morning Mr. and Mrs. Wulf.” the man said holding his personal identification at a level compatible with my bifocals. “My name is Michael Flynn. I’m here to escort you to the airport when you are ready.”
Michael carried our bags and gingerly placed them in the back of a black Chevy Suburban 1500. The ride to the airport was swift and uneventful. Michael was friendly and conversational. He said he and his wife once vacationed in the area and enjoyed boating in the Columbia River. I knew the Suburban was armored by the way its active suspension compensated for a vehicle weighing more than it should. Jianmin grinned at me and mouthed the letters, “MI5”.
Within three hours of my phone call from Professor Rowan, Jianmin and I were flying east to Richland Washington in a Gulfstream G450 corporate jet whose crew was dedicated to making us feel at home. We were seated next to the only other passengers, a bright young material scientist Arni Sigurdur from Sweden staying in Beaverton, Oregon and his wife Freyja who was expecting their first child. Arni specializes in designing ultrahigh vacuum systems. LIGO is a massive 4-km L-shaped Michelson Interferometer where each leg of the “L” is comprised of an evacuated laser optical pipeline built by people like Arni. When a gravitational wave passes through Earth, a pair of mirrors suspended at the ends of each leg wiggle enough to alter the length of the laser beam from which the gravitational wave signal can be calculated.
The flight ended before we knew it. Michael’s counterpart Steve met us at the Richland Airport with an identical Suburban. Steve had strawberry blonde hair and light freckles. He was a bit shorter than Michael, but more muscular. Both men were in exceptional physical condition. They seemed bright and educated and I suspected they had military backgrounds.
Steve came to a gliding stop in front of the Columbia Point resort in Richland where a ready army of porters opened doors, unloaded our bags, and escorted us to check-in were we were greeted by a charming staff requiring nothing more than a signature.
I have traveled throughout world. I lived and worked in China, where Jianmin and I met. But I was raised in a small town in Texas, and I still think like a small town man. I was in awe of the whole mysterious-phone-call-private-jet-to-remote-desert-scientific-compound thing. I had seen this movie before. The armored Suburbans, the Gulfstream, and the military expediency, all reminded me of the technothrillers and British police procedurals Jianmin and I enjoy watching on Netflix. So, my MacBook Pro was open and online before Jianmin tipped the porter who delivered our bags to our suite. I looked up both Chevy Suburban plates and the G450 tail number and found they were all registered to a private security company named Stellarwood Inc., which also owned the Columbia Point. I thought it was odd that a security company owned a high-end resort, so I dug deeper. I was surprised that everything about Stellarwood and the people who ran her was open and publically available — nothing like a high tech security megacorp on Netflix. I felt embarrassed. The Suburban drivers were friendly and talkative. They carried our bags. They asked us about our day. There were no sullen frowns or calculating eyes hidden behind dark glasses. No comms behind the ears. No Sig Sauer pistols holstered under blazers. The Gulfstream crew were similarly gregarious. Boring.
Note to self: Watch more comedies.