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?
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.
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.
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!
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