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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 . 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 . 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 . A key example here was our science summaries : 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 firstname.lastname@example.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:
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.
Image: Copyright 2016 The New Yorker, reprinted with permission
Figure 1: New Yorker cartoon from Friday February 12, by David Sipress.
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:
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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