Science/History Communication Against Simplification

Ryan Dorsey, M.A. Candidate, UMass History

This Friday, the University of Massachusetts Amherst will begin hosting its History Communication Summit to explore how “History Communicators, like Science Communicators,…stand up for history against simplification.” As an historian of science, the conference’s timing and topic could barely be more felicitous. Three weeks ago, scientists working at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had confirmed the direct detection of a gravitational wave. The reports of science communicators ranged from sound clips of the “chirp” to ramifications for the future of science, but they all made one point very clear: this experiment finally confirms one of the major predictions of Albert Einstein’s century-old Theory of General Relativity.

While the coverage on what it means to discover gravitational waves is solid, the coverage on what it means to take a century to make this discovery is not. The journal Nature explains that Albert Einstein formulated general relativity in 1915, Joseph Weber claimed a (false) detection in 1969, and Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse indirectly confirmed the waves’ existence in 1974, winning a Nobel Prize in 1993. The popular science site IFLScience zips through the history in one paragraph: “One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein…thought there were invisible ‘gravitational waves’….For decades…they have never been detected…until now.” And The Guardian reports simply that “all of this follows from a prediction of Albert Einstein’s 100 years ago.”

This historian sits, stewing, “How can this history be so naïve and so sparse!” LIGO’s fact sheet notes that it is the most expensive project ever undertaken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), which has invested north of 1 billion USD into LIGO to date. Two pairs of lasers, aimed at mirrors suspended two and a half miles away, help measure changes in distance that are fractions of a percent of a proton’s width. Scientists in fifteen countries collaborate on LIGO. So do tell this perplexed soul, how is it that “all of this follows” from Albert Einstein, who worked nearly alone one hundred years prior? What does it mean that Four Great Men are the history of the gravitational wave, when 950 people work with LIGO now?


Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington's photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

Figure 1: Sir Arthur Eddington’s photographic equipment being deployed on a racecourse in Sobral, Brazil. Courtesy of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A and the Science Museum, London.

The scientist’s answer is, essentially, that the science got hard. Early confirmations of general relativity were comparatively simple to attain. Sir Arthur Eddington and his team sailed to Brazil and Principe to photograph a solar eclipse in 1919 and used this data to confirm relativistic gravitational lensing by 1920. This required a boat, a handful of personnel, a few glass lenses, a box of photographic plates, and patience (encouraged, perhaps, by a splash of imperialist spirit). This experiment was, by today’s standards, easy and cheap. Yet gravitational lensing was but one of the phenomena whose existence general relativity demanded; more technically sophisticated aspects of the theory remained untested. The LIGO experiments are the result of constantly pushing research toward the highest levels of sophistication. As for the Great Men, given proper insight or opportunity, their work is that which anyone would have pursued. Theirs is the distillate of progress, extracted from a messy matrix of missteps.

Yet our question remains: how does science move from an enterprise in which a small cadre of men probe nature for truth, to an enterprise in which a single experiment is a multinational, multibillion dollar investment? How did LIGO get such massive funding, funding that seems neither available nor requisite for Eddington’s or Einstein’s work? Why did it take one hundred years to happen? And why insist that only two events in the stretch between Einstein and LIGO are worthy of note? The historian’s answer, then, must explore what the scientist (and seemingly, the science journalist) is ill equipped to consider. The NSF was charged by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science [and] to secure the national defense.” Acknowledging that “scientists and engineers had helped win World War II [by developing] penicillin and the atomic bomb,” the NSF was part of a mass movement to promote fundamental physics research in the wake of World War II, with the hope that raw, well-funded science would lead to military prowess and national preeminence. The anxiety of modern warfare encouraged the development not just of weapons, but lasers and signal processing techniques as well – the ancestors of technologies required to perform the experiments at LIGO. The Space Race with the USSR drove sociopolitical demand for national pride that justified expanding scientific research budgets. Ultimately, the tensions and pretensions of the Cold War birthed a dramatically different style of scientific practice: multinational, multibillion dollar Big Science. This wholesale structural reorganization of scientific research, underwritten by substantial shifts in US federal priorities, was a necessary condition for the observation of gravitational waves and it can’t be dismissed in telling the history of gravitational waves or the LIGO experiment. It took a century to observe these waves because scores of scientists and engineers had to invent and iterate on expensive technologies and because a new way of doing science, and its bureaucratic structures of support, needed to be borne out of international tumult.


Figure 2: The LIGO site at Livingston, LA, showing one of its four-kilometer-long vacuum tube arms in full. Courtesy of LIGO.

Figure 2: The LIGO site at Livingston, LA, showing one of its four-kilometer-long vacuum tube arms in full. Courtesy of LIGO.

This, then, is a rather different story from the timeline of discoveries reported above and it is a story the History Communicator is poised to purvey time and again. If (and likely, when) the research of LIGO wins the Nobel Prize, at most three people will be allowed to receive the award and the romantic mythology of the heroic genius will continue. But the unlaureled hero here is decades-long change in social conditions that created a new type of scientific research and its vast networks of support. These new conditions are what allow a project like LIGO to exist at all, let alone succeed. Permitting a twist to Sir Isaac Newton’s words, if we have seen gravitational waves, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants: giant machines, giant teams, and giant historical forces, indeed.

Upcoming Event:

History Communication in the 21st Century

Join us for an evening of “lightning conversations” about the future of History Communication. Prominent historians, journalists, and thought leaders engage in ten-minute conversations on how we communicate history in a digital world. Co-hosts Jason Steinhauer (The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress) and Susan Kaplan (New England Public Radio, “All Things Considered”) will moderate.

Friday, March 4th, 2016
Doors open at 7:00pm; event starts at 7:15pm
UMass Campus Center, Amherst Room (10th floor)
This event is free and open to the public!
RSVP on Facebook

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  1. I enjoyed reading this post by Ryan Dorsey, and regret not being able to attend the events this week. I think Ryan makes some interesting points about the changing nature of science, but I’m even more interested in the questions he raises about evaluating communication.

    While I think we can all agree that it’s desirable to improve the fidelity of popular science (and history), we need to develop more specific guidelines than simply sticking closer to the facts or reporting more facts. The question, IMO, is what elements of a more detailed depiction are critical to giving the public information that helps make the events meaningful for them?

    That begins, I suppose, with working out why and how the event might be meaningful from the public’s point of view. One of the most interesting things I’ve heard said about the LIGO discovery was by NASA employee Tony Darnell, on his YouTube channel, Space Fan News. Tony claims gravitational waves will usher in a new era of astronomy, which could add to our knowledge of the structure of the universe. But again, I have to ask myself, is that a result that would resonate with the general public? I don’t know.

    Given the huge amounts of public money being spent on LIGO, one would think there would be some public interest, at least in understanding how the expense was justified. That huge price tag is an element that’s missing in most history work, but given intensity of the battle for eyeballs in the digital age, it makes sense to ask ourselves why it’s important for the public to interact with our work. And even when we’ve answered that question, the challenge to make our work accessible and compelling remains.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Dan! We were excited to hear Ryan’s thoughts on History Communication, especially because of her background in Science Communication and now as an historian of science!

      • Never having met Ryan, I got the personal pronoun wrong. Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been away from Herter too long!

    • ryandorsey said:

      Caveat lector: Armchair philosophizing ahead!

      Dan, your queries present very salient concerns, and I thank you for reading! As a historian I would argue that the meaning for the “public” is understanding the social structures we inhabit and the processes that formed them. I want us to move from “Einstein thought something brilliant and we built a big tube to see if it’s true” to “human toil in policy and human losses in war were necessary down payments for the observation of gravitational waves.” LIGO “succeeded” this past month not because of a few geniuses, but because of masses of hardworking, “normal” people (1010 people authored the article!) and public money. There is an empowering message embedded there that might be meaningful to society, no? Headline: One Thousand Government Employees Discover Cosmic Ripple. I jest, of course, but only partly 🙂

      However, as a former chemist, the question of meaning or relevance confuses the heck out of me! I honestly can’t remember folks ever asking me to justify my studies in mathematical chemical modeling. In fact, the “fundamental science” movement discussed here obviates justification. Useless science is the exception to the rule, so we’ll just fund it all. Hence why LIGO’s press release can handwave that we “better understand the universe” and are “advancing knowledge” without even hinting to actual meaning or value. (For the record, they answer this question better in their fact sheet.)

      So I’ll beg your question, but broadly. Why is science generally meaningful and valuable to the public, so that individual items of science bear less burden justifying their existence, while history generally is regarded as meaning-and-value-agnostic, so each proffer of historical enlightenment needs a rhetorical “value added”? Can we fix it?

      • Not to mention all the other people who worked to produce the equipment the team used — one of my old buddies from the tech business provided them with supercomputer clusters. And if I recall, didn’t Richard Dawkins do “public understanding of science” while at Oxford?

        But yes, since you were writing for our department blog, I assumed you were implying a comparison between how science is communicated to popular audiences and how (and why) history is. I think it’s fair to say that in spite of the efforts of generations of social historians, we still focus too much on Great Men.

        Your conclusion interests me. I’m not sure I agree that the public regards history as value-agnostic. So you mean in the sense that historians are trying for some sort of objectivity? Might it also be that the public senses that academic history doesn’t have the same relationship with popular history or public affairs that science has with technology?

        Actually, I think that unlike academics, popular audiences expect history to be relevant, and expect historians to be subjective and even polemical. So fixing popular history may be as simple as getting better acquainted with the audience.

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