Harry Collins


On his book Gravity’s Ghost: Scientific Discovery in the Twenty-first Century

Cover Interview of June 22, 2011

The wide angle

I’ve been doing this kind of work since 1972 when I was a graduate student doing my PhD.

In that year I drove 5,000 miles in an old car, a big white Ford Galaxy, up into Canada and then along Route 66 into California.  All the way I was stopping off and interviewing scientists in different universities and other locations about four topics.  One of those was gravitational waves.

At the time there was a controversy about whether Joseph Weber, the pioneer of the field, had actually seen the waves.  By about 1975, no one believed he had seen them—though Joe Weber, who died in 2000, never changed his mind.

On my 1972 drive, and a subsequent return trip across the USA in 1975, I collected the reasons people gave for their changing views—I looked at what made them change their minds.  I’m still looking at the same field of science.  And those gravitational waves have still not been detected according the consensus view even though, over the years, about half-a-dozen claims to have seen them have been made.

When I started you could build a state-of-the-art gravitational wave detector in one laboratory room for a few tens of thousands of dollars.  Nowadays it’s a multi-national, billion-dollar project using enormous interferometers.

In 2004 I published a 876 page book called Gravity’s Shadow, which explains how the field grew from the beginning to the early 2000s, looking at all the claims that fell by the wayside and how they were pushed aside, looking at how the field grew from a small science to a big science and the strains that were involved, and looking at the way the scientific knowledge was constructed.

This work is just the most sustained element of a program in which I try to understand the nature of knowledge by watching it being made.  Thus, I have also written on parapsychology, on the development of a certain kind of laser, on certain famous historical episodes in science, such as the proof of the theory of relativity.

Gravity’s Ghost marks a new departure in that the last chapter, called the Envoi, is about the role of science in our society and where science is and ought to be going.  The main part of the book is the case study of the Equinox Event written up as a detective story but that last chapter looks back on all the wonderful scientific argument we have witnessed and asks how it can be sustained given the pressures of modern life.