Harry Collins


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

Cover Interview of June 21, 2011

A close-up

There are two quite different aspects of the work to which I would want to draw a reader’s attention.  The first aspect is what most of the book is about; the second aspect is the role of science in the Twenty-First Century, which is discussed in the ten page Envoi toward the end.

To get the idea of the body of the book I would hope the reader would open it at page 1 and read through to the end of the first paragraph on page 2.  They would find out they were going to read a scientific detective story.  Here were hundreds of scientists trying to work out what to say about a possible signal.  Not only did they have to work this out, but lingering in the back of their minds was the possibility that the whole thing was a fake.

rorotoko.com The decision (Photo: Harry Collins)

So there are really two detective stories intermingled, and one of the tensions in the book is how one affected the other.  Did the possibility that the signals had been deliberately injected to test the community cause them to be less assiduous in the search or not?  Mostly the scientists managed to suspend their disbelief.  Given this they argued fiercely about what the signal should be said to mean.  Some people were badly hurt, some people got very angry.  Even at the end of the 18-month process no one was sure whether what they had done was a success or a failure.

Still more puzzles about how to handle data in a case like this were generated.  Even I was surprised at extent of conflicting and contradictory views that came out at the post-mortem.  I believe this is an exciting story—I certainly found it fascinating and was gripped throughout the 18 months, wondering about what was going to happen.  I found myself getting involved in the arguments and disagreeing with my best friends in the project.  Emotions were sometimes strained.  All this comes out as the story unfolds.

Though the book is written in ordinary language I think the reader will also learn a lot about the almost unbelievable science of gravitational wave detection.  The big detectors have arms 2.5 miles long and seeing a gravitational wave amounts to monitoring changes in the lengths of those arms as the wave passes.  The scientists look at the length of one arm as compared to the other.  The change in length they need to see is around 1,000th of the diameter of a proton—in an arm two-and-half miles long!

To get the other aspect of the book I would hope the reader would flick open page 154.  This is where the meat of those final ten pages begins.

I ask what science is today.  I worry that it is becoming a branch of the entertainment industry or an outlet for venture capital.

But science is much more important than that because of the values it cleaves to.  These values have seeped out into society and inform the way we think about political decisions, not just technical decisions.

My field, the social studies of science, is politically savvy and somewhat cynical.  We have done a marvelous job of showing the ordinariness of science, and we are experts at spotting the way political and economic interests affect what counts as scientific truth.  But we have done these jobs so well that we in danger of losing sight of the positive elements of an ideal science.

Indeed, the reason that social scientists are so angry with science is that it does not live up to its own ideals.  It is the importance of these ideals to which I draw attention in the Envoi.

The attack on them comes from a variety of directions, some of them less than obvious.  For example, that millions of people revere Steven Hawking’s popular books is worrying; those millions surely do not understand them, so the works of science are being treated as something holy in themselves.  Science, as it displaces religion, is taking up the very same iconography!