I’ve watched with amusement and annoyance the maelstrom of excitement that has swept the world of physics reporting the past few days. If you google ‘gravitational waves’ you will find a slew of articles published in all the leading newspapers and scientific sites. I’m not sure when I last saw so many science sections not able to contain their excitement, all carrying the same story without any actual discovery or scientific paper to report. Really, they are no better than tabloids reporting the latest Kim Kardashian gossip, and like a Kardashian episode the fever all started with a tweet.
My earlier rumor about LIGO has been confirmed by independent sources. Stay tuned! Gravitational waves may have been discovered!! Exciting.
— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) January 11, 2016
So what was physicist Lawrence Krauss talking about? Well, in September, he started a rumour that the experimenters at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) had discovered evidence of gravitational waves shortly after their newly upgraded system began searching on September 18th. The original LIGO experiment ran for eight years without detecting any waves. A detection of a gravitational wave would be an enormous breakthrough. It is the only phenomena predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity that is yet to be directly observed and verified. There was a Nobel Prize given in 1993 for the indirect observation of the effects caused by the energy carried by gravitational waves that agreed with the predictions of Einstein’s general relativity theory. Gravitational waves are extremely difficult to detect directly however because the occurrences that would render them detectable to us are incredibly rare and far away, and the experiment is very difficult. In the video below, alongside an excellent explanation of gravitational waves prompted by Krauss’s rumour in September, astrophysicist Matt O’Dowd gives the examples of neutron stars or black holes inspiralling just before merger or supernova explosions as two such rare events that are predicted by Einstein’s theory to cause gravitational waves.
So who is Krauss and how would he know before the rest of us? Well he wouldn’t, but he is a senior physicist with a string of awards and styles himself as a public intellectual so people listen to him despite being unconnected to the LIGO project. It’s a bit like when people listen to Kim Kardashian’s opinion on things she’s not an expert in. Science or no science, we all love a celebrity. Wired quoted Krauss as saying that his tweet was intended to bring people’s attention to the experiment so that it would make more waves (pun intended) if LIGO made an announcement. Now it sounds as though Krauss made the whole thing up and heard no such secret confirmation. Or perhaps LIGO scolded him privately for his tweet because the day after he tweeted this,
To reporters: A rumor is a RUMOR. LIGO will make any announcement if there is one. I am not part of LIGO nor do I represent anyone there.
— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) January 12, 2016
To be honest, great physicist or not, Krauss comes across as an attention seeker trying to bask in the glory of someone else’s discovery before it has been announced. If I were the director of LIGO and there was actually an announcement to be made I’d be furious. LIGO goes to great trouble to keep the results of the project secret so as to not jump to conclusions. They even build false signals into the experiment to test the process with only three staff members knowing which signals are false. Any detection would be checked several times to make sure it was real before announcing anything. I’d be more than furious, I’d be homicidal if somebody tried to prematurely announce my own discovery that the final prediction in Einstein’s theory of general relativity had been observed. It’s the high stakes discovery of a lifetime for a physicist, the stuff of Nobel Prizes. But that’s just me, maybe LIGO doesn’t mind but it certainly is being completely silent on this one.
There will be a mass of sad faces (pun intended) in the coming months if Krauss’s prediction is false or there will be an amazing discovery that opens new pathways of investigation into our universe, invigorates the field of physics, and proves once again that Einstein was one of the greatest minds that ever lived.
It isn’t that what Krauss did was truly terrible but I can’t help feel there was a lack of consideration in his tweet beyond jumping the gun. He is a senior and well-connected physicist who plausibly was told confidentially that LIGO had detected gravitational waves. Tweeting prematurely as he did meant every media outlet felt obliged to carry a scientific story about a rumour with no scientific proof – the ultimate in bad science but apparently perfectly fine if you are talking about Kim Kardashian. Many regular non-scientists who are just enough in the know to understand that this is a big deal might even think that this is now confirmed. It’s effects like this that give science journalism a bad name and lead to tension between scientists and the media. As a self-appointed spokesman for science in the US Krauss believes his rumours give the project publicity so that if a positive result is yielded more people will hear about it. This may not hold true however. If it is now confirmed there has already been a rush of headlines hinting that gravitational waves have already been detected and, sadly, a lot of the general public will think that the confirmation isn’t as big a deal or be apathetic because they have reached their capacity for trying to wrap their heads around this particularly difficult concept. How many times did you hear about the Higgs boson before CERN actually detected it? While exciting, the confirmation of the Higgs felt too similar to the hype beforehand and people had their interest peaked too soon. Krauss’s tweet is basically the boy who cried wolf but instead of a boy, he’s a grown scientist who should be more responsible and leave the announcing to the people who have actually discovered something. This discovery, if it happens, deserves to be glorious and deserves to have the general public excited about it. If they still existed it would warrant a ticker tape parade. It doesn’t deserve a half-hearted public response so let us hope that the premature tweet frenzy won’t damage the grand moment when hopefully the waves are detected.
Photo: Life Magazine. Parade for Albert Einstein on his first visit to New York in 1921. .