by Joey Shapiro Key and Martin Hendry
Volume 12 - Nature Physics
Joey Shapiro Key is Director of
Education and Outreach for the Center for Gravitational Wave
Astronomy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville,
Texas 78520, USA.
Martin Hendry is Head of the
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow,
Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.
the discovery of gravitational
created sensational media
But educational outreach and
must remain high on the agenda
if the general public is to
such a landmark result.
On 11 February 2016 the
LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LCS) and
Virgo collaboration (LSC and the
Virgo Collaboration are separate organizations, they cooperate
closely and are referred to collectively as "LVC"), announced the discovery of
and the first observation of a binary black hole merger. 1
The physics community has been working
towards these discoveries since Einstein's theory of general
relativity predicted gravitational waves and black holes 100 years
ago. 2, 3
It is an especially salient example of
work that takes dedication and patience over generations of
How does the scientific
community share the excitement of this long-awaited
discovery with the world?
How can the importance of the
discovery be communicated to a public that is not familiar
with the details of the work?
And how can the entire history
of the field of gravitational wave astronomy be condensed to
maximize interest and impact for non-experts?
Modern modes of communication require
swift reactions, distilled messages, and new content backed up by
in-depth coverage of the human, historical and fundamental science
To assess the impact of the news of a
scientific discovery it is important to differentiate between public
excitement and public understanding. Efforts on both fronts are
valid and important but it is harder to evidence the latter: a
genuine increase in public understanding.
That said, we can surely agree that everyone should be able to
appreciate something about how important and exciting physics is,
regardless of their academic background, social demographic or
The discovery of
gravitational waves and the merger
of two black holes are awe-inspiring events, even for those who do
not have a deep understanding of general relativity.
Similarly, one can love a Mozart
symphony or a Renoir portrait without expertise in symphonic writing
or impressionist painting, and the beauty of Olympic athletics can
be admired by a worldwide audience, including a majority of people
who do not participate in any particular sport.
The Education and Public Outreach Working Group of the LVC helped to
shape the collaboration strategy for informing the world about our
As a group of professional scientists as
well as educators, outreach professionals, and students, we aimed to
assemble a range of resources designed for different levels and for
a variety of goals that would convey both the excitement and
importance of our discoveries and (as best we could) how those
discoveries had been made possible.
To what level of detail do we hope to have each individual engage
with our science and expand their understanding of the Universe?
With little or no mathematics we almost
always have to explain physics using analogies that are imperfect,
but that can convey core ideas.
For example, 'ripples in the fabric of
space-time' is the common analogy for gravitational waves, but what
does the 'ripple' actually refer to?
Waves on the surface of a
rubber sheet or trampoline do not 'stretch and squeeze' the
distances between points on the sheet, so the analogy doesn't work
to explain the effect of a passing gravitational wave on the LIGO
Indeed, physicists themselves were
confused about the nature of gravitational waves for 40 years, and
took an additional 60 years to build an experiment capable of
We therefore adopted a multi-level approach.
We developed accessible
resources using commonplace (if imperfect) analogies such as the
stretched rubber sheet, and simplified schematics such as our
interferometer animations, 4 designed to give even
the casual viewer some clear insight into what gravitational waves
are and how we detected them.
In parallel, we prepared in-depth
material designed to address more detailed questions about the
science and technology behind gravitational wave detection -
principally making this material available via our website.
A key example here was our science
summaries, 6 in-depth articles written without
technical language but conveying the essential scientific arguments
and conclusions presented in our detection papers.
Our products also included translations
of the press release into 18 languages, an educator guide for
teachers, new simulations and animations, and tutorials for using
the public LIGO data through the LIGO Open Science Center. 7
We also sought to promote our outreach efforts vigorously using
social media, formulating a comprehensive plan that would direct
followers to the very latest news, provide clear pathways to more
in-depth resources, and offer opportunities to engage directly with
us as LVC researchers.
These included, for example, an e-mail
address (email@example.com) that since February has attracted
hundreds of enquiries from across the globe, posing some highly
challenging and perceptive questions to the collaboration.
Finally, our strategy highlighted the importance of not just our
scientific breakthroughs, but also the scientific methodology that
We emphasized three key messages in
Firstly, detecting gravitational
waves was extremely challenging and a quest that many had
thought impossible (in the words of LIGO Executive Director
Dave Reitze, it was the equivalent of the Apollo 'moonshot').
Thus our success was a triumph for the long-term vision and
investment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and
other national funding agencies.
Secondly, we highlighted that
our discovery relied on the teamwork and cooperation of many
hundreds of scientists and engineers from dozens of
countries across the globe - mirroring the methodology of
many contemporary 'big science' projects.
And thirdly, to quote
Sagan, we conveyed the concept that "extraordinary claims
require extraordinary evidence".
The 5 month delay between our detection
and its announcement involved a huge amount of meticulous analysis,
leaving no stone unturned in the quest to convince ourselves that we
detected a real signal.
In other words, this was part and parcel
of the scientific process.
Box 1 - Making Waves about Gravitational
The worldwide response to the announcement that gravitational
waves had been discovered wasn't restricted to the mainstream
The sheer breadth and depth of
interest it generated was a testimony to the importance of the
Newspaper and television
news coverage of the gravitational wave detection
included front page articles in the
New York Times, and on the
CNN and BBC websites. A total of 961 newspaper front
pages from 12 February featured the discovery according
to Newseum, which included it on their list of dates in
2016 deemed to be of historical significance - and it
was the only positive historical news day selected in
the past 6 months. 8
Members of the US Congress
met with leaders from the NSF and LIGO in a hearing that
has been lauded as a bipartisan show of support.
The LIGO Scientific
Collaboration Facebook page top post reached 665,000
people, with 15,000 likes and 2,800 shares. From 8
February to 8 March the page reached 1.5 million people,
7,300 shares, 42,400 reactions, and gained 8,700 new
Caltech media reported 70
million aggregate impressions on all tweets using the #gravitationalwaves,
#LIGO, and #EinsteinWasRight hashtags.
The @LIGO Twitter top tweet
had 639,000 impressions, 4,116 retweets, and 2,996
likes. From 8 February to 8 March the account had 4.7
million impressions and gained 19,200 new followers.
The top LIGO Twitter mention
was from President Obama, who tweeted as @POTUS:
"Einstein was right!
Congrats to @NSF and @LIGO on detecting
gravitational waves - a huge breakthrough in how we
understand the Universe", with 80,000 engaged, 9,500
retweets, and 21,000 likes.
The PhD Comics on
gravitational waves has had 1.5 million views. 9
Brian Greene appeared on The
Late Show with Stephen Colbert to discuss LIGO and the
discovery of gravitational waves. His appearance has had
over 2.2 million views on YouTube. 10
In a YouGov survey conducted
in the UK, a third of people polled thought that the
discovery mattered a 'fair amount' or 'a great deal'.
Our Reddit Ask Me Anything
(AMA) session on 12 February provided 923 comments, with
LVC scientists answering more than 90% of the questions
asked 11 and sparked a separate thread
discussing the LVC AMA on reddit.com/r/bestof.
The NASA Astronomy Picture
of the Day featuring the gravitational wave discovery
12 had over a million views over 11-16
February, and was translated into over 20 languages on
external mirror sites.
Poet and non-scientist Missy
Assink 13 read her original poem
GW150914 or a Love Story Between Two Black Holes at
Spoken Word Paris in March 2016. 14
Our efforts to communicate the importance of the discovery have
certainly helped to build public interest in physics research (see
Box 1 above). And generating excitement is undoubtedly
the first step towards promoting understanding and awareness among
the general public.
Although we can never measure the exact impact
this discovery will have on society, it's clear that there is a wave
new physics fans across the globe.
Abbott, B. P. et al. Phys. Rev.
Lett. 116, 061102 (2016)
Einstein, A. & Sitzungsber, K.
Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 688 (1916)
Einstein, A. & Sitzungsber, K.
Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 154 (1918)
Discovery of gravitational waves