Friday 12 February 2016

What it feels like to detect gravitational waves

I wrote yesterday's blog post before we announced our gravitational-wave detection. At the time I wrote, I had no idea what the announcement would feel like.

I was at a press conference in London. Well, almost. Before the press conference started I was whisked away to a BBC radio studio, so that I could talk about the discovery immediately after it was announced.

I got into the studio at 3.20pm, ten minutes before the official press conference was due to start.

“I can’t say anything before 3.30pm,” I explained. I’m sure it didn’t matter anymore, and I’m sure the strict news embargo was falling apart all over the world, but a five-month habit was hard to break. I wasn’t even sure if I would dare to say anything after 3.30.

I sat in a chair and put on headphones. The programme presenters were actually in Manchester. (Brian Cox must have been unavailable. Perhaps washing his hair.) The current programme was something completely different. In the studio with them they had spoken-word poet Hollie McNish. She was talking about her life. I could see them all talking on a video monitor. This was cool! My wife went to a Hollie McNish show last year, and we have a poster on the wall at home, and now I got to listen to her live! With ten minutes to go, I settled down to listen to something that, for the first time in five months, had nothing to do with gravitational waves. Then the interviewer said, “I’m sorry, but we have to stop now to go live to a major scientific announcement in the United States.”

Hey! I was enjoying that! What’s going on?

Oh yeah. Gravitational waves.

For a few minutes it was a bit painful, watching the British broadcasters and the British poet sitting in a studio listening to a stirring speech about the greatness of American science. I was worried about how long the fluffy background would last. How long were radio listeners going to be subjected to pre-announcement puff-talk? Especially the bits that involved playing a movie, which no-one listening to the radio could see.

Fortunately it didn’t last long, and then good old Dave Reitze came on. He was looking cool. Hi, Dave!

He didn’t beat about the bush. He just got up and said, “We have detected gravitational waves. We did it!”

And all of my flippant cynicism evaporated. The reality of it hit me.

We had been working for five months to get these results out. We wrote one big paper on the detection, and 12 other “companion” papers on the science we squeezed from the observations, and the backup evidence and explanations for how we got the results and why we were sure they were correct. Many people worked insanely hard. Sometimes it was horribly frustrating. There were interminable teleconferences. There were hours of discussions devoted to obscure technical points that probably didn’t matter — but everyone wanted everything covered. Everything had to be checked and re-checked, then doubted, debated, and checked again.

And the emails! Oh, the emails! My email filtering skills have now reached combat level.

By the end of it, lots of people were exhausted, frustrated, and ready for it to be over. Nerves were strained and tempers easily flared. The calm facade of scientific discussions was beginning to crack. And just when everyone was at their most frazzled — then we had to plan press conferences.

Amidst all of that, it was easy to forget the significance of what we observed.

Then Dave made the announcement, and everyone applauded, and suddenly it was hard to breathe properly.

In a few minutes they were going to expect me to speak. Was I allowed to just blubber on live radio?

There was some time to compose myself. The radio show stuck with Dave for a little longer, then went back to the studio in Manchester. Then there was a pre-recorded explanation from Stephen Hawking. Hey, who told him? Weren’t we supposed to keep this a secret? It turned out that he served a useful purpose. Getting grumpy at whoever blabbed to The Hawkster was really helping me get my tear ducts under control.

By the time I got on, I almost had it together. I can’t remember what I said, although they did ask me who was going to win the Nobel Prize. All I could think was, “If I say a name on a recorded broadcast, I’m a dead man!”

The whole thing is still sinking in. It might take years. That’s fine — it will also take years for the implications to sink in to the world of science. The day will come when hearing the clomps and thumps of the universe will seem as natural as looking into space with a telescope. That’s when we will really understand what all this has meant.

Previously: We detected gravitational waves!

Next: 1. How to decode gravitational waves from black holes.
          2. Why bother trying to explain gravitational waves? 
          3. Is spacetime really curved?

1 comment:

  1. Supermassive congratulations to you and all involved in this incredible work/discovery, and thanks to you Mark for managing to explain it to dumb people like me in such an entertaining way.


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