October 25, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich
Collision, collaboration and communication
The other day I read an article on why academics are losing relevance in society. I noticed that it contained a picture of a celebratory cake with the inscription “Here’s to the first direct detection of gravitational waves” (after two black holes collided). This event happened in 2016 and was widely celebrated around the world, mainly I suppose by scientists and science enthusiasts. The article says nothing about this event or why this picture was chosen for an article talking about the loss of relevance of science in society.
I read this article just a week after another, even more spectacular announcement relating to gravitational waves. I am not talking about gravitational wave researchers being awarded the Nobel prize for physics this year on 3 October, but about the announcement of the detection of a binary neutron star merger resulting in a gamma-ray burst and emission of gravitational waves. This was observed on 17 August and announced on 16 October.
Although in terms of astronomical distances, this collision of stars happened in our backyard, has this got any relevance to society here on earth? In some sense it hasn’t, in particular to those people living with war, hunger, illness and poverty or the aftermaths of hurricanes, floods and wildfires. People caught up in these situations certainly won’t find comfort in knowing that distant neutron stars have collided.
So, can one make a case for these findings being in any way relevant to society? Perhaps yes. Just like the 1968 picture of planet earth sent back from space, they allow us to see things differently. Seeing things differently might lead to acting on the world and on each other differently.
And despite everything, these findings may also bring some solace to us in dark times. As J. K. Rowling said in a tweet, referring to an article in The Independent: “Following space accounts on here is good for your mental health. Soothing glimpses of vastness, beauty & mystery.”
What am I actually talking about? I am talking about the observation (‘sight’ and also ‘sound’) of two neutron stars slamming into each other and shaking the fabric of the universe. Lots has been written and said about this discovery and I won’t go too deeply into the science as such.
Hannah Devlin has written a good overview for The Guardian and an article published by the ‘Inside Science News Service’ adds a human dimension to the story. It shows how news of the neutron star collision rippled round this planet and woke up hundreds and hundreds of scientists; like this one for example:
“Aug. 17, 2017. It started as an ordinary morning in southern Louisiana. The air was hot and humid as the sun rose above the Mississippi River. Brian O’Reilly, one of the lead scientists at the Livingston location of the gravitational wave detection facility known as LIGO, was just beginning his day. It was barely 8 o’clock when his phone rang. ‘I have twin babies — they’re a year and a half — and I was actually changing my daughter at the time,’ said O’Reilly. ‘That’s when my phone started beeping in my pocket.’ Minutes later, he was in a phone conference with fellow astrophysicist Gabriela Gonzalez from Louisiana State University, as well as scientists thousands of miles away at LIGO Hanford in the state of Washington.” … There are many more such human stories out there.
This feat of scientific detection was only made possible through extensive collaborations between human scientists across the world.
The scientists involved were spread across continents and worked at numerous institutions and installations, most importantly perhaps LIGO and Virgo: “LIGO and Virgo comprise more than 1,500 scientists, all of whom are working towards a single goal: to capture signs of gravitational waves and decode their meaning. The data gathering happens at massive observatories in the US and Italy, but the analysis is done in countries all over the world.”
As Kieran Healy tweeted: “One of the new LIGO papers has 4,500 authors at 910 different institutions—about a 1/3 of the world’s astronomers.” To which Nathan Oxley replied: “It can stop you in your tracks to think about the level of cooperation and coordination of resources and people needed to achieve this.”
It is therefore not astonishing that the news was greeted with great excitement by a new initiative that has just been launched, namely “Together Science Can”, which is supported by the Wellcome Trust and many other organisations (see here for tweets).
Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and supporter of this initiative, wrote an article for The Guardian about scientific collaboration before the neutron stars announcement. Some of what he wrote is worth quoting in the context of our search for ‘relevance’ of science in society:
“We need to celebrate […] collaboration more than ever, because it doesn’t happen on its own. It needs an environment that encourages researchers to build international and interdisciplinary teams, to work in different countries, to attack problems that no one person, or nation, can solve alone. […]
It’s up to people who, like me, believe in the power of science to speak up for the systems and principles that make collaboration possible. It means making the case for flexible, welcoming immigration that allows the movement of talented people and teams across borders in order to take global action against global problems.”
The discovery of the neutron star collision was a great example of collaboration in fundamental science. We need to nurture, not restrict and obstruct, such collaborations, also beyond fundamental science. They are ‘relevant’ for society as a whole, as they show what humans can do when they work together.
As Philip Ball has recently pointed out, science communication is difficult. On the one hand, one wants to a serious job, not just rave and enthuse about science; on the other one has to grab readers’ or listeners’ attention and engage them in discussion and dialogue. In the case of this discovery it was difficult not to be enthusiastic.
Adam Rutherford, an experienced science communicator/writer, introduced a report about the neutron star collision for the BBC Radio 4 programme Inside Science in the following way: “… it’s our job on Inside Science to get behind the headlines and more importantly to undo the hype and give a real cool-headed scientific analysis of landmark new discoveries. So let me begin by saying that this is freaking awesome”. If you know how awesome this was in terms of science and collaboration, please listen to the podcast.
The language used when communicating about this discovery was certainly colourful and would deserve a more detailed analysis. The Independent spoke of an ‘alchemical explosion’, a headline that was retweeted by Scientists for EU in the following way: “’An alchemical explosion’. Beautiful! Two neutron stars just seen colliding – disrupting spacetime & spewing… gold”.
And with gold we get down to earth, away from abstract notions of gravitational waves and neutron stars. Some people said that scientists had indeed struck gold! And one tweeter replied to the Scientists for EU tweet by saying: “Where’s ma mule? I’m a gonna get me some o’that thar gold.”
More seriously, we can now begin to find out where the heavy elements, like gold, on the periodic table come from, where they are ‘forged’ in the universe. Does this make it ‘relevant’ to people? Perhaps not, as this tweet shows: “Gogglebox is hilarious. ‘Two neutron stars collided 130 million years ago’ ‘Why are they bringing it up now then?’” Ok, so not everybody is interested in space and astronomy; even some big science writers aren’t!
However, what really cheered me up was that this event was not just ‘communicated’ by scientists and professional science communicators. It was also talked about by people who are just good communicators (with a background in science), such as Mike Galsworthy, of ‘Brexit communication’ fame. Listen to his talk about how scientific collaboration is turning our planet into a listening super-organism; a great example of good science communication!
The picture of Earthrise sent to us from space in 1968 changed some people’s perceptions of our planet. Seeing our planet as a listening super-organism based on international collaboration might perhaps change how we see ourselves as a collaborative species. I find this quite inspiring and relevant for society.
In any event, it is really important that we talk more about collaborations beyond borders in science and also society; and not only talk; let’s provide the best conditions for this to happen, rather than putting more and more obstacles in the way.
When the announcement was made on BBC Breakfast on 16 October, I was, yet again, in Eye Casualty. I saw and listened to it over and over in the course of two hours and the whirr-plop sound of the collision will stay with me for ever. Did it cheer me up, give me ‘perspective’? No! However, the thought of someday perhaps going back to all this and looking at this more deeply, even just to distract myself, did give me something to hang on to, at least for some of the time. So I tucked away some tweets while I waited…
Image: Illustration of a binary neutron star system in the process of merging. The remnant formed by this merger could be either a neutron star or a black hole, determining whether it launches a gamma-ray burst. [NASA] (Los Alamos National Laboratory)