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Harry Collins, a sociologist embedded in the LIGO project, recounts the discovery of a lifetime

Gravity's Kiss: The Detection of Gravitational Waves

Harry Collins
MIT Press
416 pp.
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A year ago, the discovery of ripples in space itself—gravitational waves—rocked physics. Apart from the researchers involved, nobody has paid closer attention to the decades-long quest to detect those ripples than Harry Collins, a sociologist at Cardiff University, who has followed the field since 1972. In the early 1990s, he embedded himself in the collaboration building the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the massive instruments in Louisiana and Washington State that made the discovery on 14 September 2015. In Gravity’s Kiss, his fifth book on the field, Collins, 73, gives a real-time account of LIGO’s stunning first observation and physicists’ struggle to validate it—and keep it secret—until it was announced 5 months later. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: What attracted you to this particular community?
A: For my Ph.D., I wanted to investigate some controversial sciences. And I read about gravitational waves in New Scientist magazine, and it seemed an appealing one to me. I drove all the way across America in 1972 talking to gravitational-wave scientists.

Q: How long did it take you to be accepted by LIGO physicists?
A: It took 2 or 3 years to earn people’s trust. The 1990s was the height of that bitter period known as the science wars [in which social and natural scientists argued over the legitimacy of each other’s work], and I was seen as somebody on the wrong side. But the scientists were fairly impressed by my technical understanding of the field, my persistence, and my analysis of their interactions. And they’re a good bunch, and I think that many of them thought, “Well, we should talk to this guy because he’s an academic, too.”

Q: As a sociologist of science, what are you trying to understand?
A: The sociology of science is a subspecies of the sociology of knowledge, which traditionally looked at why people in one society believe in one thing and people in another society believe something else: Here they believe in witches, and there they believe in mortgages. I go to laboratories and talk to scientists and watch them making knowledge. I study how they decide one thing is true and another thing is not. It’s a kind of empirical version of philosophy, if you like.

Q: You’re not arguing that objective scientific truth doesn’t exist, are you?
A: I’m not. But since I’m interested in why scientists come to this conclusion rather than that conclusion, it’s no good me saying, “Well, they came to this conclusion because it’s right.” I could do that without doing any research. I’m asking, “Why is only this kind of doubt expressed by scientists and not that kind of doubt?” People could go on questioning any result forever. But you have to stop at some point if you’re going to make progress. The sociologist can ask, “Why stop here rather than there?”

Q: So, for example, sociological factors determined which checks LIGO physicists did?
A: That’s right. You’re allowed to ask, “Could somebody have hacked into LIGO and generated a false signal?” You don’t ask, “Could the waves be traveling slower than the speed of light, which would make all our calculations wrong?”

Q: You criticize LIGO physicists for misleading the press in order to keep their discovery secret. What should they have done instead?
A: All you’ve got to do is have something that’s more like an unveiling instead of a piece of magic. People often say, “We’ve developed this new car, but we’re keeping it under wraps and we’ll reveal it on such and such a date.” I don’t see why you couldn’t do the same thing with a scientific discovery and avoid telling fibs.

Q: What’s at stake when scientists fib?
A: Science is the last institution where being honest is a quintessential part of what you’re doing. You can do banking and cheat, and you’ll make more money, and that money will still buy you the fast cars and the yachts. If you cheat in science, you’re not making more facts, you’re producing nonfacts, and that is not science. Science still has this chance of giving a lead to democratic societies because scientific values overlap strongly with democratic values.

Q: Is this the end of the gravitational wave story for you?
A: It’s close. I’ve arranged with somebody else to take over for me. I just feel very lucky that the discovery was made before I died or became gaga.

About the author

The reviewer is on staff at Science, AAAS, Washington, DC 20005, USA.