Multimodal Gravitational Waves

Scientists as part of the LIGO Collaboration have made the first direct detection of gravitational waves, and black holes.  Up until now, both gravitational waves and black holes have existed largely in the realm of mathematics, starting with Einstein’s ideas of General Relativity.  Black holes could be observed indirectly by witnessing their consumptive, destructive effect on light-producing matter around them like stars, but because they don’t emit light of their own, they are all but impossible to see.  Gravitational waves have been even more invisible, because of just how faint they are.  But on the 14th of September, 2015, all that changed, and scientists at two facilities of the LIGO Collaboration, using a complex laser detection system, independently and near-simultaneously detected the gravitational waves of two black holes colliding a billion light years away.

The BBC has a fantastic group of articles explaining the discovery, the underlying science behind it, and why the discovery matters.  In a nutshell, gravitational waves are caused when objects with immense gravity, such as stars or black holes, suddenly have their gravity wells changed.  The disruption of space time sends ripples across the universe, much like tossing a rock into a pond.  Gravitational waves, once they get moving, are essentially unhindered by anything in their path – they pass through just about everything as if it weren’t even there.  This means that they can travel immense distances (a billion light-years, say), without degrading.  Scientists were finally able to detect them by using a laser system capable of measuring the minuscule fluctuations in space-time caused by these waves (less then the size of an atom). The discovery has finally confirmed the last piece of Einstein’s relativity, the mathematical framework upon which we understand much of the universe.

These articles, which all work together to make the information as accessible as possible, are rather rhetorically complex, and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of the ways that they are communicating this information.

The primary article from the BBC functions as one would expect – as an overview of what is happening.  It’s interesting that the BBC is working so hard to establish a certain ethos not for themselves, but rather for the discovery itself.  Multiple times throughout the article, they mention how this discovery is destined for a Nobel Prize in the same way that Luke Skywalker was destined to confront Vader.  Even if few people can name Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, everyone knows that Nobel Prizes mean big, important discoveries.  It’s worth noting, however, that this over-the-top Nobel shilling seems reminiscent of media pundits’ insistence that the upcoming presidential race would inevitably be Clinton and Bush – which is looking unlikely on the Republican side, and less of a landslide than expected on the Democratic.

To help establish ethical gravitas for their Nobel pick of the year, BBC also listed other discoveries that are on the same tier of importance – the discovery of the Higgs particle (though do people really know that one?), and the discovery of the structure of DNA (everyone knows that one – admit it, you immediately pictures the double helix with different colored rungs, didn’t you?).  They also have a separate page of “Reaction: Gravitation Wave Discovery“, with quotes from scientists you’ve never heard of about why this is so important.  Finally, they have the godfather of black holes himself, and arguably the single most recognizable scientist in the world, Dr. Stephen Hawking, featured both in the article and in his own video.  Even though he actually had nothing to do with the team that made the discovery.  The fact that Hawking is excited means that the rest of us should be excited too.

Very well.  I believe you, BBC – this is important, because all of these scientists say it is!  Well done.  However, I’m still confused.  Help?

Fortunately, BBC anticipated that as well, and has created a decently multi-modal experience to help explain what’s going on.  First and foremost, they’ve taken full advantage of one of the major affordances of web-based articles by creating multiple pages about different facets.  Rather than trying to explain everything in one large, clunky, difficult to understand article, they break it down.  The primary article has enough information that you can get it, but doesn’t go into huge detail.  Another article, which we’ve already talked about, showcases reactions.  Yet another article features anticipated questions that people might have about this discovery, with digestible answers that get into the more nitty gritty of the science.  They also have:

Unfortunately, this plethora of articles all about the same subject are only sort of connected, in the auto-generated “Related articles” section.  Only the primary article features links to all of the others – BBC missed an opportunity by not creating a dedicated landing page where all of this information could be accessed quickly and easily, without scrolling to the bottom of a several thousand word article.  Even with that said, however, the breadth and depth of the content that they’ve created around this discovery simply enhances the ethos of the discovery.  If the BBC is willing to spend this much time, money, and energy on these gravitational waves, then they must be important.

Aesthetically Scientific

Back in January, NPR’s Science Friday did a story about Steve Erenberg, a man who collects old scientific equipment. To go along with the radio interview, in wonderfully multimodal experience, Luke Groskin, the story producer, created a video interview/tour of Steve’s store.

Something that sometimes gets lost when confronted by technology is the purely aesthetic value of that technology, and what those aesthetics are saying.  One of my favorite lines from the video with Steve is about the importannce of aesthetics.

Quack devices are “designed to be better looking than their purpose…The more important it looked, the better people thought it worked, and the more money the doctor would get.”

Aesthetics matter.  Are you going to be comfortable jumping into an MRI machine with rust?  How about one with teeth?  Probably not, right?  Part of the job of technology is to convince people to use it, and we use technology that looks, feels, sounds usable.  If no care were given to aesthetics, then how many inventions would come to mass market?  The aesthetics of our technology, ie not having MRI machines with teeth, play an important rhetorical role in establishing ethos for the equipment itself.  Such and such looks good, looks modern, looks sleek, and therefore must perform its function remarkably well.

Another connection that I really enjoyed was made by Luke Groskin, the producer.  He made the comment in a later interview with Ira Glass that:

“You can see the art movement at which they [the science pieces] were created – the art movements during which they were created in the actual pieces.  So you can see expressionism in these dentistry practice anatomical models…You can see Victorial clawed tables. You can see more modern tin and aluminum, very sleek, very very simplistic designs. “

In other words, the aesthetics of science and technology are a product of the culture in which  they exist.  Some of these devices in the video might look like torture devices to us now, because that’s what our cultural language has decreed – torture devices are old and antiquated, not a product of our modern society, and many of the slasher films that we watch are based on technology of the past.  They look terrifying to us because of our cultural climate, but we can’t every forget that our things only look the way that they do because of our cultural expectations.  We all only need to look at yearbook photos to see how quickly cultural expectations are.  So we need to perhaps be aware that Now is not forever, and that modern gives way to antiquated very quickly. What will our great great grandchildren think of the absurdly clunky and spacious laptop computer that I am typing this article on?  As Steve Erenberg Summarized quite nicely:

“That’s what science is.  We always think state of the art and we’re ahead of our time and it’ll never get anymore modern than that, but it’s always changing.”

Science is not static, but is perpetually changing, as is every other facet of our culture.  And that change is not a bad, or scary thing.  That change is called progress, and is the reason that the “quack devices” as Erenberg calls them are not still in use.  Also, let’s remember that “Quack devices” might not necessarily be correct – just because something didn’t work doesn’t mean that it wasn’t valuable.  After all, the contribution of failure to scientific progress is extremely important.  Science changes, culture changes, and hopefully, those changes are for the better.

When Failure Counts

On January 18, 2016, SpaceX attempted once more to land their Falcon 9 rocket on a barge in the ocean.  The resulting failure was pretty spectacular (there were no people aboard, and no one was injured):

Throughout most of the history of SpaceX, Elon Musk has been quite public about his company’s many successes, and occasional misfires/spectacular explosions.  Let’s remember what the SpaceX team is trying to do – land a rocket that has flown to space and delivered a payload, in an effort to make rockets reusable, and thus bring down the cost of spaceflight.  Before SpaceX, this was something that had never been done before.  And prior to this attempted landing, SpaceX has succeeded several times, with varying levels of both precision and difficulty in the attempt.

No matter what, however, within days, Elon Musk releases the video of the attempt.  In the case of the failed landing and explosion video, he accompanied it with a simple, brief technical explanation of a possible cause:

“Falcon lands on droneship, but the lockout collet doesn’t latch on one the four legs, causing it to tip over post landing. Root cause may have been ice buildup due to condensation from heavy fog at liftoff.”

No attempt to make excuses, or assure anyone that this will never happen again, or cowtow to shareholders in the company.  What SpaceX is attempting to do is really, really, really hard, and explosive results are an inevitable part of that.  Can you imagine GM releasing that kind of statement if one of their brand new concept cars didn’t start at a car show?  Of course not – there would be apologies and finger-pointing and people would be fired.  Think back to the Obama administration’s investments in renewable energy companies a few years ago.  The companies that we remember are the ones that went bankrupt after the Department of Energy loan – Solyndra, Fisker, and Abound.  Companies who received the assistance defaulted on $780 million dollars – which is only a 2.28% default rate.  That means that over 97% of the loaned money was not defaulted on.  In fact, a few years later, and the government is turning an overall profit from those loans.  But still, the thing that we remember about that program, and the thing that many people judge that program on, are the few companies that did fail, the small percentage that did default.  This is demonstrative of a failure-adverse culture that is becoming prevalent.  Many teachers I think would recognize this in their students – top students are looking to be told what to do, how to get an A, rather than exploring and experiments and risking the possibility of failure.

However, failure is a major part of success.  Progress cannot be made without risk, and with risk comes not the potential, but the reality of failure.  Greatness and progress come when failure is overcome, as Elon Musk and the SpaceX team are doing.  While I can’t speak for Mr. Musk’s motivations in posting videos of failure, I can see a potential attempt to shift our thinking.  By sharing his failures publicly and with no apology, Mr. Musk is embracing his failures, learning from them – and helping us to learn along with them.  I sincerely hope that he continues this trend with all of his companies, and that other companies who could push the limits take comfort, and perhaps a bit of courage, in witnessing the failures of others, so that they can equally embrace and learn from their own.  After all, that’s how we progress as a society.

And besides.  When Elon Musk fails, it’s usually accompanied by a big explosion.  Which always makes for a fun video.


Thinking about how we think about science