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Nature Physics editorial charges physicists with failure to explain the LIGO advance properly

7 March 2016
The editors adduce only a satire magazine headline as evidence that the public has been deprived of good gravitational-wave understanding.

In “a triumph of ingenuity and perseverance,” exulted the thumbnail summary atop a 1 March Nature Physics editorial, physicists “have finally detected gravitational waves.” The summary continued: “And now we need to explain them to the general public.” The editors charged that the public’s response was largely summed up in this Daily Mash satire headline: “Scientists completely fail to explain ‘gravitational waves.’” The editorial declared that physicists “should learn to explain the physics of these spectacular events to non-physicists.”

But unless you count the satirical article, the editors offered no actual evidence of a communication failure or public dissatisfaction. Science communication matters. Does their concern have merit?

It’s plain the editors know that the Daily Mash “publishes spoof articles,” as it says of itself, and that it “is not intended, in any way whatsoever, to be taken as factual.” No doubt the editors themselves shared the tongue-in-cheek fun of reading about “Professor Henry Brubaker, from the Institute for Studies,” an authority quoted regularly at the Daily Mash on any and all topics, as a search of the publication showed. The imaginary Brubaker reportedly announced that gravitational waves are “basically waves of gravity,” causing himself to be badgered with questions. The satire piece portrays an increasingly harried Brubaker finally blurting out, “Okay, fine. Einstein was a total freak and no-one has the faintest idea what he was on about. But ‘gravitational waves’ sound amazing, whatever they are.”

Have physicists really failed to explain, justify, and convey that amazement?

Bias disclosure: Recently at Physics Today Online, I contributed a Science and the Media piece under the enthusiastic headline “The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory contributes a physics sound bite for the ages.” The subhead enthused, “Media worldwide celebrate LIGO's ‘fleeting chirp’ confirming ‘the last prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity.’” The reported celebrating included commentaries by well-known physicists at the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes.com, and US News, as well as remarks reported by the BBC from Stephen Hawking. In collections of short essays at the Guardian and US News, a total of 13 physicists offered brief gravitational-wave explanations. On Stephen Colbert’s CBS TV show, as can be seen in an 8-minute video, physics popularizer Brian Greene used a tiny laser setup to illustrate how LIGO succeeded. If any such public-outreaching physicists failed to meet standards, Nature Physics didn’t finger them.

But the editorial did say this: “Of course, the announcement, made on 11 February 2016, immediately hit the headlines. ‘We did it,’ stated David H. Reitze, executive director of LIGO. The excitement was palpable. Some of us cried.”

As it happens, anyone can judge the effectiveness of physicists’ presentations at that day’s press conference. It’s all available on a pair of YouTube videos adding up to 90 minutes.

The first video lasts 71 minutes and starts with moderator France Córdova, the astrophysicist and former NASA chief scientist who directs the LIGO-funding NSF. LIGO executive director David Reitze’s famous exclamation comes up at about minute 4: “We have detected gravitational waves! We did it!” A watcher, biased or not, might well declare at this point that journalists and other onlookers are in the presence of physicists who are experiencing historic scientific excitement and who know quite well how to share it.

Reitze shows two short videos within the video. The first, from a computer simulation, portrays the two black holes orbiting each other and drawing nearer. It explains, he says, the “proof that binary black holes exist in the universe.” The second depicts the gravitational waves that were detected. Reitze extols the “remarkable precision,” analogous to a tolerance of the width of a human hair over the distance of a light-year. He emphasizes that a “new window on astronomy” has been opened—that this was a “scientific moonshot.”

Soon the microphone goes to Gabriela González, LIGO scientific collaboration spokesperson from Louisiana State University. Among much else she explains concerning the observed signal, “We know it’s real because 7 milliseconds later we saw the same thing in the Hanford detector” in Washington. Her delight and excitement are obvious and irrepressible. “This merger happened 1.3 billion years ago,” she marvels, “when multicellular life here on Earth was just beginning to spread.” Future detectors will increase measurement accuracy; we can really “begin listening to the universe.” She certainly succeeds in conveying friendly excitement. If she fails in physics clarity, someone else will have to identify where and how.

At about minute 21, LIGO cofounder Rainer Weiss of MIT explains historically how the LIGO work builds on that of Albert Einstein. He shows an illustrative animation of the method of detection. He uses a handheld pendulum to illustrate further. Soon his fellow cofounder Kip Thorne of Caltech addresses the black hole convergence and the creation of the waves.

Starting at minute 40, Córdova begins moderating a Q&A that stretches into the 19-minute second video. The questioners included Davide Castelvecchi of Nature, Adrian Cho of Science, and reporters from across North America and around the world. Without any apparent scripting, the session ends on notes that enable the explaining physicists to impart not just clear factual information, but more about their overall professional sense of what the Nature Physics editors came to call this entire “triumph of ingenuity and perseverance.”

When a woman from China asks about energized competition among gravitational-wave physicists worldwide, González gently rejects the notion, substituting words about a spirit of cooperation. “We don’t believe in races,” she declares. “I want to see all these windows open. It doesn’t matter who gets there first.” Córdova then points out that the Physical Review Letters paper has 1004 authors.

At the very end, Thorne finds himself invoking the Renaissance with its great art, architecture, and music. He predicts that our descendants will appreciate the present era’s contributions to the understanding of fundamental laws.

For a third of a century I’ve observed, assisted, and written about physicists communicating physics. That doesn’t even remotely make me an expert, but it does mean I’ve been paying attention. I’ve already reported that I’m biased, but now I’ll add this: I have no idea what the Nature Physics editors could be complaining about.

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Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and was a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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