The sociology of gravitational waves: an interview with Harry Collins

 

Just over a year ago, the discovery of gravitational waves excited the physics community, and the impact of this great event has not yet gone. We met the sociologist Harry Collins, Distinguished Professor at Cardiff University, who studied since 1972 the “sociology of the search for gravitational waves”, writing a lot of papers and four books on this matter. The last book, Gravity’s Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves, was published last January.

Professor Collins, for more than forty years you studied the sociology of the search for gravitational waves, defining this research field as a good case study of the methods of science. Why? What is so special about gravitational waves physics?
I stumbled across gravitational waves when looking for a physics controversy to study. I also looked at controversies in parapsychology. But I found I liked gravitational waves and the people in it. I could understand it – it has a long term future and I found everyone in it had a great deal of integrity so I felt comfortable around them and their project. It was only in the mid-1990s that I realised this would last as long as my career.

Finally, gravitational waves have been detected. What does this discovery mean for you? After all, this is the end of a very long research project…
It is a sheer delight that gravitational waves has been found because it means my gamble on choosing this as a lifetime interest has paid off and I can finally finish this project – which has lasted for 45 years. It is also scientifically thrilling. Of course, for years I have been using gravitational waves as an example of interpretative flexibility in science and now this has to be reconciled with the almost immediate acceptance of the result with no criticism. In my book I try to work all that out.

In these years, you worked closely with the community of gravitational waves scientists. I guess you talked with them after the discovery. How are they living this exciting time? Could you tell me any particular episode?
Everyone (including me) is thrilled and excited. I am very pleased for my friends in this field and they are very pleased for me; they congratulate me on sticking with a field which many people said would never go anywhere.

In your book Gravity’s Shadow: the search for gravitational waves you wrote about the existence of two sets of ripples: those that spread through physical space-time and touch the detectors, and those that spread from the detectors through social space-time, until reaching social agreement. Could you better explain this point? Now can we say that the final goal (reaching social agreement) was finally achieved?
In my book I describe my trip to the American Physical Society listening for criticisms of the result. But there are none except from the fringe. The social ripples have reached consensus in almost no time. In the book I try to explain this.

Are you surprised by the great media impact of the discovery?
I am a bit surprised but also very pleased. I do think it is one of the greatest scientific discoveries ever – far more thrilling than the Higgs Boson – and the result of 50 years of perseverance in the face of a very great deal of scorn.

In a couple of books you documented the two blind injections* on LIGO experiment of 2007 and 2010. Why do you consider these events so interesting? What did scientists learn?
Well, I had to write these books because I was not sure that gravitational waves would ever be found and so these results would be the only indicators of what a discovery in this field would look like. For the physicists they are rehearsals for the discovery process and they are the same for me. There is a lot of technical stuff in the second book that has saved me from the trouble of working it all out again for Gravity’s Kiss so I could work it out quickly and understand it all much better. We are also able to see the difference between blind injections and the real thing. They should be the same but they are not because in the case of the former everyone knows they might not be real.

A lot of rumors have anticipated the official announcement of the discovery. The cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who was the first to spread these rumors, says that the circulation of gossip is useful to prepare the public and media about the discovery. Do you agree? Have you talked about this point with LIGO and Virgo’s physicists?
I have a lot of sympathy with Lawrence Krauss on this point; I think the physicists were far too concerned with secrecy. The fact that the discovery made such a huge public impact was, I suspect, something to do with the rumours preparing everyone for it.

Have you in mind a last, “definitive” book on this matter?
I will write a couple more papers and maybe a more reflective book on the entire 50 years of the search, but Gravity’s Kiss is the end of the main project.

 

* “Blind injections” are fake signals added to the data without telling the analysts, to test the detector and analysis.

 

Credits featured image: Chemical Heritage Foundation, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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