This past week has been surrealistic. You work on accomplishing something that neither you nor your esteemed colleagues believe could be fulfilled in your lifetime, but finally when it does happen you don’t realise its full significance. This is what happened to many of us with the detection of gravitational waves. We have been working on this for decades. For five months from the day of discovery to its public dissemination, we were busy making sure what we have detected is not an instrumental artefact or an unintentional or a malicious tweaking of the instruments to make it look like an astrophysical signal. We were also busy writing the 13 papers that we wanted to make public on the day of the announcement. Two days before the press conference we were still arguing about contents of the various papers. Many of us paid little or no attention to how we would go about media coverage and what we would say about the discovery, its significance and social impact.
The media coverage of this discovery has been unbelievably vast, deep and pretty much accurate. We not only received unprecedented media coverage but also broke previous records for how long a scientific story stayed as prime news in social media, blogs and newspapers. It is particularly amazing when you see its mention in a sports story, inspires a new soup recipe or rap music. To quote Kip Thorne, we are soon becoming part of the culture. I haven’t understood how this discovery caught the imagination of the media, the public and an outburst of coverage. Perhaps it was a combination of rumours that preceded the announcement , the name of Einstein associated with the prediction, the black holes that were behind the discovery which are always a topic of fascination for everyone, or perhaps the large collaboration of 80 institutions in 15 countries that helped spread the word. But what does this discovery really mean for the general public and does it have any impact on their daily lives?
In a talk we presented to students, staff and the general public at Cardiff University on 17 February 2016, a question from the audience was “This is a big discovery alright; but what’s in it for me?” I was a bit harsh when I said “Honestly, nothing”. I did go on to add that the impact of scientific discoveries take decades or centuries to realise. I believe it is too soon to state why anyone should care about this discovery. There are spin-offs arising both from instrumentation, theoretical modelling and data analysis algorithms that were used in this discovery. The passion for solving intractable problems drives scientists and engineers to take the extra step that is necessary to solve them and these spin-offs are seldom realised on their own. So funding pure science is definitely worth for humanity even though the main goal of scientific endeavour is to gain a deeper understanding of how the Universe works; it is driven by basic human instinct and curiosity. It is not driven by noble, altruistic thoughts to incur benefits to other human beings.
If we try to justify pursuit of scientific knowledge based on impact we might be treading on a dangerous path. Scientific discoveries, such as the dynamite, atomic bomb and the internet, have had both destructive and constructive impacts. Scientists are neither interested nor capable of managing societal impact of scientific discoveries and they are best left to people who are more knowledgeable. There are exceptions, of course, and Einstein himself was a tremendous force in shaping how scientific discoveries are put to use, although he is believed to have regretted his influence on the development of the atomic bomb.
However, I think this discovery will have great cultural and sociological impacts. What this discovery has shown us today is that technology is only limited by fundamental physics principles. We can keep pushing the boundaries to achieve remarkable feats. What we have discovered is a mammoth achievement for not only science but also for engineering, computing, material science, etc. I also hope that this will be inspirational for students to pursue careers in science. The progress in science is slow but rewards, when they do come, are unmeasurable. It is not just an intellectual exercise but it is an adventure and the desire to go where no one has gone before and that journey has just begun.