Outreach of a Scientific Collaboration: Challenges and Rewards

Marco Cavaglià

In our rapidly evolving world, science is an integral part of our society. Every day, each of us is exposed to the most recent advances in science and technology through media and social interaction. People are eager to be informed about science, discuss it, hail new scientific discoveries or even condemn them: the time of elitist scientists holed up in their labs is over. In this context, science outreach holds a prominent place in any research program, this being especially true for large-scale scientific organizations which gain a lot of exposure in mass media. Projects such as CERN's Large Hadron Collider, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, and NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory must maintain a public image of their endeavors which is informative, current, attractive, and readily accessible to the community at large. Although limited time and funding resources make this undertaking challenging, rewards can be substantial and well worth the effort.

In this brief letter, I would like to share with you some of my recent experiences as member of the Education and Public Outreach working group of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. LIGO is one of the largest physics projects that the National Science Foundation has ever funded. Its goal is the detection of gravitational waves from cataclysmic astrophysical sources. Direct measurement of gravitational waves will open up a revolutionary new window on the Universe, which will probe some of the most violent and energetic phenomena in the cosmos – from black holes and supernovae to the Big Bang itself. As a frontier physics effort, a core mission of LIGO is also to inspire interest in astronomy and fundamental science among students and to educate the broader community. The grand scale of the LIGO interferometers, together with the innate public fascination with black holes, supernovae and other extreme astronomical phenomena provide an ideal framework for achieving these aims.

Developing a meaningful and effective outreach program in a scientific collaboration presents several challenges. Outreach activities must meet the standards and the public expectations of a major scientific experiment in the collective imagination; in a world where multisensory experience is essential to capture the attention of the public, old style events such as plain lectures or written contributions in the press are no longer effective to adequately convey scientific information to informal learners. People expect to “see and touch'' the products of scientific research, as they see and touch the products of the latest technological innovations. Outreach programs must also involve the public in a non-passive way. In the era of blogs and social networks, people want to participate to the ongoing discussion, express their opinion and often offer their judgment. Science is not an exception to this trend; personal interaction with scientists and their instrumentation is essential to reach out to a general audience. A further challenge for outreach in a large-scale experiment is the need of a high level of coordination among collaboration members. Time is limited and outreach activities are, unfortunately, still a low priority task for the majority of faculty, graduate students and postdocs. Collaboration personnel working full-time on outreach is a luxury. Excellent ideas and programs may be scattered among research groups and often unknown to other members of the collaboration. This leads to unnecessary duplication of efforts, waste of resources and limited broader impact.

When an outreach program is successful, returns for scientists are invaluable. Apart from direct and indirect benefits in funding and recruiting, personal interactions with members of the public are very rewarding; I think that there is nothing more gratifying than helping a child or a non-scientist to understand a little more how our Universe works. There are several ways of building a successful outreach program. Internet-based activities, projects in the local community, and after-school and diversity programs with links to formal education all offer great potential for public education at all levels. In this context, interdisciplinary programs may appeal to an audience broader than people merely interested in science. Events blending science and music or visual arts are particularly suited to this purpose, being able to gather a crowd from humanistic disciplines which is usually not seen in more traditional science outreach events. A successful example of outreach program blending science and music is the ongoing partnership between LIGO and renowned contemporary composer and percussionist Andrea Centazzo, author of Einstein's Cosmic Messengers [1], a new multimedia show featuring Centazzo himself playing live music inspired by relativity and gravitational waves in sync with a projected multimedia video. Centazzo's concerts are preceded by a brief introduction to astronomical phenomena such as black holes and gravitational waves by a LIGO scientist. This partnership led to a series of free concerts at various LIGO member institutions around the country which attracted both music and science enthusiasts in a single event. The celebrations for the 2009 international year of astronomy, winding down as I write, offered another excellent opportunity for such interdisciplinary programs. The classical concert of renaissance music Music of the Spheres by the Mockingbird Music Ensemble, preceded by physics demonstrations with ancient scientific instruments and complemented by historical readings of Galileo and Kepler, recently yielded a similar success at the University Museum in Oxford, MS. Nothing was more rewarding than seeing a mixed audience of college students, music enthusiasts, and more wonder why a double cone on an inclined plane seems to defy gravity.

Internet-based resources are important to reach to a large number of people in a short time, especially when the publication of a scientific result causes a spike in the public interest. LIGO, as most of the major scientific experiments, has a presence in social networks such as Facebook [2] and Twitter [3], and a news blog [4]. While these outreach programs fill the need for human contact with LIGO scientists in cyberspace, real contact with LIGO scientists on a one-to-one basis is essential to transmit enthusiasm for scientific research. Site-based programs allow the public to directly interact with LIGO researchers, but their reach is mostly limited to those regions in which the LIGO observatories are located, leaving the collaboration with the need to develop programs at national and international levels. In this case, the challenge is how to reach to a broad audience with minimal resources. The touring show on gravitational waves and LIGO science Astronomy's New Messengers addresses precisely this issue. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Astronomy's New Messengers consists of an approximately 200 sq. ft. exhibit traveling to junior colleges, universities, museums, and other public institutions through the U.S. This project is able to physically reach a broad audience of citizens from diverse socio-economic groups, different areas of the nation, and underserved groups. To maximize its impact, the exhibit's design reproduces the science and technology of the actual LIGO instruments in an eye-catching and entertaining way: text panels and large LCD screens with looping high-quality videos deliver key informational points, and a number of interactive components (including a computer game – the Black Hole Hunter [5]) engage visitors in discovering how LIGO operates and understand some of the foundations of gravitational wave astronomy.

In summary, innovation in outreach – be it through new technologies, interdisciplinarity, or more traditional media, is essential to capture the attention of the public in a competing world of diverse interests. Synergy between groups is also indispensable to get a meaningful outreach program off the ground in those scientific collaborations that cannot afford a dedicated team of professionals. Success can be achieved with rigorous planning, support from the leaders of the collaboration, and a lot of goodwill.


[1] http://www.andreacentazzo.com/ecm
[2] http://www.facebook.com/ligo.collaboration
[3] http://twitter.com/ligo
[4] http://ligonews.blogspot.com/
[5] http://www.blackholehunter.org/

Marco Cavaglià is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Mississippi and Chair of the LIGO Science Collaboration (LSC) Education and Public Outreach (EPO) Working Group.

Disclaimer - The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of APS.