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:
- A video creating both sound and visuals of the black holes colliding (Can’t find this one anywhere embeddable.
- An article attempting to contextualize the magnitude of what black holes colliding really means
- Many images, illustrations, and diagrams that attempt to explain what’s happening.
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.