It’s been almost a day now since the world found out about GW150914, the 0.2 seconds of tiny distortions in spacetime which have kept around a thousand scientists entertained for half a year, and which seems to be close to breaking the internet today. As the hype starts to settle down, I think it’s time to reflect a bit on what happened yesterday. You can tell that today’s not a day when many people in the department are getting very much work done.
I’ll start with a new, and ground-breaking observation. Gravitational Waves can propagate through media. I mean the Media. I went into a newsagent today and bought a selection of the papers which had news of the detection on the front. I left with a lot less money in my wallet than I went in with (also with one of the last ever paper copies of the Independent…).
We also made a bit of a chirp on Twitter:
(there’s a Storify here, put together by the Social Media team for LIGO). We even got tweeted to by the President of the United States. I think, all-in-all, we enjoyed our 15-minutes of fame.
Of course, on a local, and much more personal level, I got to go to the Glasgow Press Conference, and I got photographed alongside the team of IGR scientists who had spent (in some cases) the last four decades working towards a detection. It was very exciting: none of us had been told what would be said at the press conference (we did know that the first direct detection of a gravitational wave had been made: we’d spoiled that surprise for ourselves some time earlier), so the wording of the speeches all came as a surprise. Words of thanks were said to the various funding councils, and a brief summary of the activities of LIGO were made before the director of the observatories, David Reitze took the stand. Despite six months of work, somehow nobody was quite ready for what he said.
We have detected gravitational waves. We did it. David Reitze
There was a brief silence in the room. Followed by rapturous applause. Which was followed by a standing ovation. It was unlike anything I’ve ever been part of. The press lapped up this display of excitement from all us stoic scientists, and very nearly missed the details of the announcement (though our clapping was drowning-out the video feed to Washington DC just a little).
After the actual announcement was made the podium was handed over to our spokesperson, Gaby Gonzalez (who’s currently being celebrated on a poster in our department’s foyer, as yesterday was also the International Day for Women and Girls in Science) took the stand to explain the science from the detection (and played the “thump” of the gravitational wave, as it passed through the Earth). We then had one of the co-founders of the whole project Rainer Weiss, explain how the interferometer (the machine which actually records the gravitational wave) works (and made a playful jibe at theorists!) before handing over to the charismatic Kipp Thorne. Kipp’s an interesting guy, and he’s done a lot to make gravity an exciting subject for the general public. He was largely responsible for the public conception of wormholes—weird tunnels through spacetime—and he was the science advisor for the 2014 film Interstellar.
Kipp’s now a bit of a hero in Glasgow. His opening remarks were to thank MIT and Caltech for their contributions to the development of the field, and also to Scotland and Germany. Well, that went down pretty well here. We weren’t expecting that level of recognition (I suspect our colleagues in England and Wales may be less pleased though).
As the DC press conference ended we segued into our own local conference, which was presented by our Head of School, Martin Hendry, who’s also a member of the collaboration. I have to admit to having been looking forward to this bit just as much as the announcement itself, because Martin had picked up the infographic I’d made for yesterday’s post, and put it into the presentation at the press conference. I got a little name-drop at a big event, and I was pretty chuffed (but you’d never guess that…). That said, I included a picture of a dinosaur on it (because dinosaurs are exciting, and really old). My deputy supervisor would later point out that it should have been a picture of an amoeba, so I can expect that to come up in my PhD viva in three years time!
After the press conference there was much jubilation. By jubilation I mean that the University put on a spread of fancy canapes, and champagne. At the same time some of us started to check up on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and all over the media. I think we were all a bit overwhelmed, and so we took advantage of the free drink. Then we went back to the physics building to celebrate with our colleagues in the rest of the School of Physics and Astronomy (and to gloat, a bit [a lot]). There was more free alcohol, so they put up with it.
Yesterday was a day I hope I’ll never forget.
Oh, and there’s just time for this alternative perspective on events: