The Legacy of Scientific Discovery


On the morning of February 11th 2016, people around the world congregated in conference rooms to watch a press conference that would change the face of modern physics.

Months earlier, rumors started flying that the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, had at last found so­mething. Though such a monumental discovery is kept quiet until the scientists involved are completely confident in their analysis, the overabundance of closed-door meetings and irregular busyness of LIGO scientists indicated something was afoot. (At Northwestern’s center for astrophysical research, the champagne glasses outside the viewing room that February morning were also a dead giveaway.) 

I am a scientist in the LIGO collaboration and knew well what was to be announced, but excitement still pumped through my veins as I headed to the viewing room.  I gathered with my department in a room far too small for the number of bodies it contained. With everyone’s eyes and ears fixed on the projection of the press conference, David Reitze, the executive director of LIGO, delivered the message to the world: “We have detected gravitational waves. We did it!” Glasses clinked, congratulations were passed around, and a ubiquitous excitement for this new field of astronomy permeated the astrophysics community for weeks to come.  

A billion years ago, two black holes collided and sent rippling waves through the fabric of space-time. In fall 2015, 150 days before the announcement, the precisely calibrated detectors at LIGO sensed these ripples as they passed through our planet. These ripples are known as gravitational waves. Though Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves a century ago, it took a hundred years to develop the finely-tuned technology to sense their minuscule effect on space. After years of upgrading the instrument and perfecting data analysis techniques, LIGO finally achieved the sensitivity necessary to uncover this elusive phenomenon, providing astronomers a new way to gaze at the Universe.

Months before the announcement was broadcast to the world, LIGO researchers, including myself, dedicated a great deal of time and effort developing explanations and descriptions of our research. We wanted to find the best ways to convey the magnitude of our discovery to those outside the field. For an esoteric science such as gravitational-wave physics, this is not an easy feat. We worked vigorously to assemble the best narratives to communicate the discovery and explain the underlying physics. Teams worked to construct high-end simulations both scientifically accurate and awe-inspiring. Even our tweet schedule was hand-crafted by the minute to properly disseminate this monumental moment.

After the news broke, the excitement that filled the scientific community overflowed to the public; terms that previously induced confused stares came to the tip of many people’s tongues. Besides being one of the hottest topics trending on social media, the LIGO discovery hit The Late Show with Steven Colbert, was explained to the world by Superbowl MVP Von Miller, and the sounds of this discovery were even turned into musical compositions.

Despite this, a British survey taken days after the announcement found that 58% of those polled felt this discovery mattered little or did not matter at all to them, and only 11% felt that this discovery mattered a great deal to their lives. This disconnect isn’t exclusive to gravitational waves – many scientific discoveries in the past have also fallen victim to public disinterest. A study by the Pew Research Center conducted in 2012 found that only 40% of Americans said they were “very interested” in news about “new scientific discoveries”, and 14% were “not interested at all”. News about space exploration hit particularly low marks; just 23% of polled Americans find it “very interesting”. And why should the public care about these discoveries, especially since they require hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to come to fruition?

Many discoveries, regardless of how profound they are, do not have an immediate impact on the livelihood of individuals. Detecting the last piece of the Standard Model of Particle Physics or pinning down when the Big Bang happened will likely never affect your day-to-day life. These discoveries won’t put money in your pocket, reduce crime rates, or help you find your true love.

In spite of this, major scientific advancements require the knowledge and collaboration of arguably some the brightest minds in the world. And though the primary directive of such projects is scientific discovery, these discoveries necessitate invention and innovation that play a much larger role in all our lives than most people realize.

Take the Hubble Space Telescope. Its optics and image processing techniques were designed to access the far reaches of space. The charge-coupled devices (CCDs) originally developed to beautifully image the Universe have since aided in the fight against cancer. These CCDs were able to greatly improve breast tissue imaging, not only permitting earlier detection but also allowing doctors to analyze the tissue with a needle rather than surgery. This technology, although developed for space imaging, is now used routinely in cancer care to save lives and improve patient well-being.

In the realm of particle physics, we can find another spinoff that truly has transcended its price tag. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is the largest physics collaboration in history. But the collaborating physicists had a problem: information was stored across many different computers, and the only way to access it would be to log onto each information-housing machine separately. Sir Tim Berners-Lee originally developed the World Wide Web to allow this large community of scientists to communicate more efficiently. Even more vital, the web software developed at CERN was released to the public in 1993 free of charge and with an open license, maximizing its dissemination and usefulness to the public. Since then, the role and reach of the World Wide Web have increased exponentially. It’s hard to even imagine life without it in our modern, cloud-based lives. Though the impact of this discovery is already immeasurable, Sir Berners-Lee has high hopes for its future. At a seminar on the future of the Web, he expressed “The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.”

So how will we use gravitational waves and the technology that led to their detection to better our day-to-day lives? Your guess is as good as mine. We may never be able to harness ripples in space-time to power our household appliances or transmit data on our smart phones at a higher bit rate. But gathering bright minds to solve hard problems always leads to unexpected results. Moreover, these innovative solutions have a knack for benefiting society. And for me, every step towards gaining a better understanding of our place in the Universe is a resounding victory for humanity.




Mike, thank you for writing

Mike, thank you for writing this excellent piece, it gave me the shivers ... I am proud of you as my student, you expressed what all of us interested in scientific discovery - whether directly involved or not - feel at historic moments like this ... We should make sure we don't forget that special feeling!

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