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Hype about gravitational waves

  1. Feb 12, 2016 #1
    There seems to be considerable interest in the recent detection of gravitational waves. For the physics community this interest is fully justified. But in the popular press it seems to me to be reaching unjustified and perhaps harmful levels. When one reads overblown hype like:

    " A giant leap for theoretical physics: Scientists have for the first time detected elusive ripples in the fabric of space and time known as gravitational waves. There is no doubt that the finding is one of the most ground-breaking
    physics discoveries of the past 100 years." (See http://www.techcentral.co.za/a-giant-leap-for-theoretical-physics/63158/ by Gren Ireson).

    sceptical folk, like myself, begin to wonder whether such publicity is doing our discipline more harm than good. Is this what theoretical physics is all about? Or is this publicity just hype born in the desert of modern physics, long after the glory days of the first half of the 20th century, when physics astounded humanity by bringing the second World War to such an abrupt conclusion?

    I think that it promotes schadenfreude; "how are the mighty fallen" from the days when the benefits of physics were more obvious than they are now. Hyperbole should be avoided.
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 12, 2016 #2
    Such publicity is important when non-scientific people have to decide what to fund in science. Too large a portion of the population have no clue what real science takes and how much it costs to do it. When results have to justify the expense to an audience that doesn't understand the value, miraculous claims which are essentially true can promote funding for continued research. Don't hate the players, hate the game.
  4. Feb 12, 2016 #3
    It's a striking and important advance. It is hard to categorize with a broad brush, but I tend to regard this result as among the most important experimental results in physics in the last 100 years.

    A lot of the hype is intended in part to interest people in science. We need more students choosing and persevering in science and engineering majors.

    One of my students has already downloaded the data and is planning to analyze it with tools she developed.
  5. Feb 12, 2016 #4
    And perhaps the most difficult to obtain...
  6. Feb 12, 2016 #5
    Though ongoing funding may be one motive, I would not take such a cynical view. Scientific advances can be celebrated for their own sake, and also to generate interest for reasons other than funding (attracting students, for example.)

    I think scientists and the general public can appreciate a result without necessarily agreeing with the funding choices that produced it or the funding choices that may be needed for further progress in the same area.
  7. Feb 12, 2016 #6
    Keep us updated on any interesting insights!
  8. Feb 12, 2016 #7
    If it's regarding "pop-science", it is detrimental to education from the start. We see it every day. If science were presented with all it's intrigue intact those young sponges with a basic understanding of classical statistical physics could only suck up facts if that is all that is presented, and we wouldn't have crazy pop-sci "How can gravitons escape gravity?" questions. We'd have "I hear how it works but I can't get the math!" questions.
  9. Feb 12, 2016 #8


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    This discovery is probably the crown jewel of general relativity, gravitational waves have eluded direct detection for almost exactly 100 years. So, yes, in that respect it is certainly a nobel class accomplishment. In all fairness, however, the Hulse -Taylor result [another nobel award winner] pretty much sealed the deal on the existence of gravitational waves. The more impressive accomplishment of LIGO was to open the door to gravitational radiation astronomy. This could lead to the resolution of any number of cosmological mysteries [which will undoubtedly be replaced by even more confounding mysteries]. Science is truly the gift that keeps on giving.
  10. Feb 12, 2016 #9
    I think we almost have the keys so we are very close to the top.
  11. Feb 12, 2016 #10
  12. Feb 12, 2016 #11
    I was originally attracted to Physics by pop-science (the Funk and Wagnalls Science Yearbook), and throughout my career, I have found pop-science to be very useful in the teaching and learning of Physics (and other sciences). A good teacher figures out how to add the math to make it real.

    I've got a student now who has been working for 18 months perfecting methods of frequency analysis, and she is very excited to reproduce the spectrograms in Figure 1 of the Gravitional Wave PRL and especially to apply her methods to the seconds before the obvious event to see if her analysis methods can detect any signal in the noise. She's developed some great tools working on "pop science" problems: greenhouse gas concentrations, global temperatures, tides, etc.

    It's true that many students never get much past applying the math in freshman physics, but thanks to Myth Busters (and a Myth Busters like attitude), there is a lot that one can do with pop science type problems with those rudimentary tools.

    Lawyers will always have issues with dumb legal questions (TV mostly), as will doctors and scientists. The only thing worse than people saying wrong things about your favorite field is no one talking about it at all.
  13. Feb 12, 2016 #12
    That is a point I never considered... the discovery and understanding is what drives my passion for science but I can see how others might like recognition and discussion as their reward for all the work they do. The only point I am trying to make is there is much room for improvement between the scientist and the journalists. Rarely is one person good at both!
  14. Feb 12, 2016 #13
    Then perhaps we need many more like you. But you see where the problems lie, is with the unguided, take everything literally and don't question anything attitude which runs rampant. I saw it on a movie so it has to work like this.
  15. Feb 12, 2016 #14
    I think the challenge is articulating the simplifying assumptions to make it understandable in such a way that the audience understands that the simplified version being presented is not completely general (only applies in special cases.)

    THIS MIGHT NOT APPLY to other cases you think of in the middle of the night, especially if you have been drinking.
  16. Feb 12, 2016 #15
    After the test run works out easily, that is where the challenge needs to be presented and let them figure out how to apply it to a real problem.
    This is that special case. We detected an event which radiated waves of considerable energy across a vast distance. Now the challenge is to adapt this to the LHC and detect the ripples from collisions...
  17. Feb 12, 2016 #16
    From what I can tell this is impossible, possibly forever.
    The energy scales are separated by about 53 (!!) orders of magnitude.

    This leads me to think it will never be possible whatever we do with colliders.

    Edit: I have to think about this tomorrow, it's probably less dramatic if I take the spread of the energy over the spherical wavefront into account. However, we still need a huge detector to be able to measure these ripples. (tag me on monday if I haven't gotten back to you)
  18. Feb 12, 2016 #17
    I wasn't being serious! I was just making a "hyped up" example :oops:
    I was seriously curious how far off metric expansion is in orders of magnitude from gravity waves, to get an idea how they compare as if we could tell if space is expanding locally someday...
  19. Feb 13, 2016 #18
    My bad, it was late.
    However we've dismissed the idea just in case someone with exactly that questions finds the thread :-)
  20. Feb 13, 2016 #19


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    Well of course that is part of each individual's character (looking for recognition, being the center of the world for some time etc)... but there are some things associated with the point you mentioned, that go even beyond what each person is like... All in all, when your job is ignored, it's difficult to find funding for it...Without funding, you can't really expect to "discover" anything, so forget your passion...

    as for the journalist-scientist relation... how can it be better? nobody hates one another, but no-one is the other...
    a scientist's job is around science, in their lab or office....
    a journalist's job is a pen that sells...
    The real science job does not sell [or it becomes a magazine with a certain/restricted target group of science-involved people]. There are cases like that... However even at such articles you can read several bad information; because not everything can be explained within an article (a scientist spent several years attending classes, researching, etc to be able to work on his job).
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