Gravity’s Ghost and Big Dog

Scientific Discovery and Social Analysis in the Twenty-First, by Harry Collins

Roughly 50 kilometers east of Baton Rouge, La., lasers ricochet off mirrors that dangle at the ends of a 4-kilometer-long, L-shaped vacuum tube. A nearly identical facility sits almost 3,000 kilometers away in Washington state. The research stations — part of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO — are designed to sense gravitational waves, minuscule ripples in the fabric of space. Unlike the recently detected waves from the Big Bang (SN: 4/5/14, p. 6), the waves LIGO picks up will most likely come from black hole or neutron star collisions.

In 2007, and again in 2010, the mirrors at both sites appeared to tremble in unison. Was this the first direct detection of gravitational waves? Was it a fake signal inserted to test project scientists? And if it was genuine, how would the researchers announce their Nobel-worthy finding?

In this update to his previous book Gravity’s Ghost, sociologist Harry Collins chronicles the occasionally heated (and often arcane) debates among LIGO researchers as they wrestle with how best to analyze, interpret and publish their data. They argue over whether the detection (code-named “big dog”) of gravity waves near the Canis Major constellation is real, and what to tell the world about it. While gravitational waves are at the heart of the book, Collins’ main targets are the philosophies and social dynamics that drive modern science. His interest is less in the physics — though he does get caught up in the excitement and even dabbles in some hypothesizing of his own — and more in its sociological underpinnings.

As an embedded journalist, Collins had nearly unfettered access to years of internal deliberations among the LIGO scientists. This is as close as a layperson could come to actually being there. Unfortunately, this strength can also be the book’s greatest downfall. At times, the reader drowns in detail, becoming mired in the minutiae of how to title a research paper or the subtleties of a statistical calculation. The casual reader might want to give this one a pass; the physics junkie or philosophy of science enthusiast, however, will find lots to mull over. 

Univ. of Chicago, $30

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Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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