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Conveying Gravity: Communicating the Discovery of Gravitational Waves

By Joey Shapiro Key, Martin Hendry, and Daniel Holz

On February 11, 2016 the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration announced the first direct detection of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger [1]. The physics community has been working toward these discoveries for a century; Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted gravitational waves and black holes in 1916 [2, 3]. Science is an inherently careful and skeptical pursuit and the discovery of gravitational waves is an especially salient example of work that takes dedication and patience by generations of scientists. The Education and Public Outreach Working Group of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration (LVC) helped to inform the world about our scientific breakthrough, attempting to convey the basic science of what has been accomplished, and why it is exciting and important. As a group of professional scientists as well as educators, outreach professionals, and students, we assembled resources designed for different levels and for a variety of goals.

Physicists themselves were confused about the nature of gravitational waves for 40 years, and took an additional 60 years to build an experiment capable of detecting them. Given this, how do we efficiently and effectively convey the basics to a general audience with little or no mathematics? To do so we adopted a multi-level approach. We developed accessible resources using commonplace (if imperfect) analogies such as “waves on a stretched rubber sheet” and simplified schematics like our interferometer animations [4]. These were designed to give even the casual viewer some clear insight into what gravitational waves are and how we detected them.

In parallel, we prepared in-depth material designed to address more detailed questions about the science and technology behind gravitational wave detection, and made this material available principally via our website [5]. A key example here was our science summaries [6]: in-depth articles written without technical language but conveying the essential scientific arguments and conclusions presented in our detection papers.

We also sought to promote our outreach efforts vigorously using social media, formulating a comprehensive plan that would direct followers to the very latest news, provide clear pathways to more in-depth resources, and offer opportunities to engage directly with us as LVC researchers. These included, for example, a question@ligo.org address that since February continues to attract hundreds of inquiries from across the globe, posing to the collaboration some highly challenging and perceptive questions.

Finally, our strategy highlighted the importance of not just our scientific breakthroughs themselves, but also the scientific methodology that underpinned them. We emphasized three key messages:

  1. Detecting gravitational waves was incredibly difficult and a quest that many had thought impossible (in the words of LIGO Executive Director Dave Reitze, the equivalent of the Apollo “Moonshot”). Thus our success was a triumph for the long-term vision and investment of NSF and other national funding agencies;
  2. Our discovery relied on the teamwork and cooperation of many hundreds of scientists and engineers from dozens of countries across the globe — mirroring the modus operandi of many contemporary “big science” projects;
  3. To quote Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” so the five-month delay between our detection and its announcement involved a huge amount of meticulous analysis, leaving no stone unturned in the quest to convince ourselves that we detected a real signal.

Our announcement of the detection of gravitational waves became a worldwide sensation (see Box 1). For a brief moment the physics of black holes outshone all other news, generating a wave of positive coverage exciting the public consciousness.

Cartoon of 2 birds
Image: Copyright 2016 The New Yorker, reprinted with permission

Figure 1: New Yorker cartoon from Friday February 12, by David Sipress.

Box 1: Making waves about gravitational waves

The worldwide response to the announcement that gravitational waves had been discovered wasn’t restricted to the mainstream media. The sheer breadth and depth of interest it generated was a testimony to the importance of the result:

  • Newspaper and television news coverage of the gravitational wave detection included front-page articles in the New York Times, and coverage on CNN and the BBC. According to the Newseum, a total of 961 newspaper front pages from February 12 featured the discovery, which included the “Discovery of Gravitational Waves” on their list of dates in 2016 deemed to be of historical significance [7].
  • Caltech media reported 70 million aggregate impressions on all tweets using the #gravitationalwaves, #LIGO, and #EinsteinWasRight hashtags.
  • The LIGO Scientific Collaboration Facebook page top post reached 665K people, with 15K likes and 2.8K shares. From February 8 to March 8, the page reached 1.5M people, 7.3K shares, 42.4K reactions, and gained 8.7K new followers.
  • The top tweet of the LIGO collaboration had 639K impressions, 4116 retweets, and 2996 likes. From February 8 to March 8, the account had 4.7M impressions and gained 19.2K new followers. The top LIGO mention was from President Obama tweeting as @POTUS: “Einstein was right! Congrats to @NSF and @LIGO on detecting gravitational waves — a huge breakthrough in how we understand the universe," with 80K engaged, 9.5K retweets, and 21K likes.
  • The PhD Comics on gravitational waves has over 1.5 million views [8].
  • Brian Greene appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to discuss the discovery of gravitational waves and a binary black hole, generating 2.2 million views on YouTube [9].
  • In the YouGov survey in the UK, a third of people polled thought that the discovery mattered a "fair amount" or "a great deal" [10].
  • Our Reddit Ask Us Anything (AMA) session on February 12 provided 923 comments, with LVC scientists answering more than 90% of the questions asked, and sparking a separate thread discussing the LVC AMA on reddit.com/r/bestof [11].
  • The NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) with the gravitational wave discovery had over one million views February 11 - 16, plus translation into over 20 languages on external mirror sites [12].
  • Poet and non-scientist Missy Assink read her original poem ‘GW150914 or a love story between two black holes’ at Spoken Word Paris in March 2016 [13, 14].
  • In popular culture there were tweeting birds in a New Yorker cartoon (see Figure 1), a mention in “News from Lake Wobegon” on A Prairie Home Companion, and a Saturday Night Live sketch with the Super Bowl MVP Von Miller comparing himself and Cam Newton to colliding black holes [15].

The authors are writing on behalf of the Education and Public Outreach group of the Ligo Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration. Joey Shapiro Key is an Assistant Professor of physics at the University of Washington Bothell and the Chair of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) Education and Public Outreach Committee. Martin Hendry is professor of gravitational astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Glasgow. Daniel Holz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics, the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, the Enrico Fermi Institute, and the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, at the University of Chicago. This article is adapted from a Commentary in Nature Physics (Key & Hendry, June 2, 2016) with permission of the authors.


1. Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger, Physics Review Letters 116, 061102 (2016)
2. A. Einstein, Sitzungsber. K. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 688 (1916)
3. A. Einstein, Sitzungsber. K. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 154 (1918)
4. LIGO interferometer animation (https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/video/ligo20160211v6)
5. LIGO Scientific Collaboration (www.ligo.org)
6. LVC Science Summaries (http://www.ligo.org/science/outreach.php)
7. Newseum “Discovery of gravitational waves” (http://www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/?tfp_display=archive-date&tfp_archive_id=021216)
8. PhD Comics on gravitational waves (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GbWfNHtHRg)
9. Brian Greene on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4GbWfNHtHRg)
10. YouGov survey in the UK (https://yougov.co.uk/opi/surveys/results#/survey/b8db9270-d173-11e5-a405-005056900127/question/68052f90-d174-11e5-a405-005056900127/social)
11. LVC Reddit on February 12, 2016 (https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/45g8qu/we_are_the_ligo_scientific_collaboration_and_we/)
12. Astronomy Picture of the Day, February 11, 2016 (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap160211.html)
13. Missy Assink (https://about.me/missyassink)
14. Spoken Word Paris (https://www.facebook.com/Spoken-Word-Paris-165517768215/?fref=ts)
15. Saturday Night Live Weekend Update with Von Miller (http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/weekend-update-von-miller/2985367)

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