February 29, 2016: Science?

Happy Leap Day!  I recently started what I thought was a very interesting discussion at one of the Facebook astronomy clubs that I belong to, Telescope Addicts.  As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, LIGO scientists recently announced that they have discovered gravitational waves, crossing off the last of Einstein’s amazing predictions from his theory of relativity.  This is truly a remarkable achievement, and will foster the building of further “gravity telescopes” to probe and explore the universe in new and different ways, ways that we cannot detect through the electromagnetic spectrum – visible light, X-rays, gamma rays, infrared, etc.  They made this discovery based on the merger of two black holes of 36 and 29 solar masses each, about 1.3 billion light years away, and the gravitational waves that merger produced.  Once merged, the new black hole contained 62 solar masses.

If you notice that the mass numbers don’t add up, it’s because in the merger, three solar masses were completely converted to energy in just 20 milliseconds.  Evaporated, literally in the wink of an eye.  The amount of energy that was unleashed in that fraction of a second is truly staggering – it is fifty times the amount of energy of the entire observable universe.  And they found this literally within a few days of turning on the new and improved LIGO back in September, implying that this type of energy output is going on fairly frequently somewhere in the universe.  Yikes!  Fortunately, 1.3 billion light years is plenty enough distance away from us where we don’t have to worry about things like this.

While the discovery is certainly amazing and will lead us to new explorations and further discoveries, what I find interesting about this new discovery was the announcement process, which was the same process by which they announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson.  Normally, science is done in public – sort of.  Someone – or some team – conducts an experiment, makes an observation or discovery, checks it as best they can, and then announces it relatively quickly, especially so as not to be scooped on the discovery by a competing team investigating the same thing.

An announcement such as this would normally lead to the publishing of the discovery in the form of a paper in a scientific journal of some standing such that it can then be peer-reviewed – others in the field review the discovery, the data, the interpretation of the importance of that data, check the math, etc., and see that everything was done properly.  Sometimes these “others in the field” are referees, scientists who were actually appointed to review the submission of the discovery by the journal in question.  In some cases, the experiment leading to the discovery itself is repeated to verify that the experiment was performed properly in the first instance.  For well over 150 years, this general description has been how science gets done, how we learn more about the universe, how we advance as a species.

But as science has gotten “bigger”, so to speak, the model of the single genius toiling away quietly in a room, or even a small team of scientists writing equations on the chalkboard for each other while conducting investigations, that model has changed.  The days of Watson and Crick (and Franklin) discovering DNA in their lab, the days of Wilson and Penzias discovering the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation with their radio telescope, those days are fast disappearing.  It is now the era of big science, where there is just one Large Hadron Collider, there is just one LIGO (in two parts, though).  And all the best scientists in those fields from around the world gather together at those machines and do their science together.

For example, with the Higgs Boson, there was a significant lag between its discovery around November 2011, and the announcement, 7 months later on July 4, 2012; the same thing occurred with this LIGO discovery, where the announcement occurred about 5 months after the discovery.  In both cases, during that time, the discovery was analyzed, the data reviewed, the equipment checked to ensure that it was functioning properly.  But in both cases it was analyzed internally, privately, and by the dozens or hundreds of scientists who were working on it, representing the great majority of the best minds relative to that field.

In both cases, there were two teams using the same equipment to make their discovery.  This is because there were no other teams on the outside that they were competing with; there is no way to make these discoveries elsewhere on other equivalently sensitive equipment, because there is no other equivalently sensitive equipment anywhere in the world.  Meanwhile, during the period of the delay between discovery and announcement, all the people who examined it, who vetted it, who questioned and probed it – they’re all on the inside. They’re all part of the project, part of the process, and – of course – they want their multi-million or multi-billion dollar project to succeed, and to receive even more funding to continue their work.

And all of that checking, that vetting, that questioning and probing, it all took place in private, and kept private for months under the authority of the controlling director of the respective overall project, because there was no risk of being scooped by any other team.  It was not placed before into the public peer-review process that has been the gold standard in science for a very long time – until now. It is possible – although doubtful – that there is nobody left outside of the process who can peer-review this information, and by “can”, I mean “has the ability to”.  There is a concern that the best and the brightest in these fields have all been snapped up by the respective projects themselves, and there is no “other team” out there competing with them to knock down their results, to say, “No, you haven’t found it; but we have.”

Even as little as 20 years ago, the discovery that the universe’s expansion was accelerating was done in an atmosphere where two teams, the Supernova Cosmology Project at Berkeley led by Saul Perlmutter, and the High-Z Supernova Search Team led by Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, where actively working with different methods, different equipment, with an urgency to achieve the same goal.  In the mid-1990s the teams were competing with each other in a race to see which team could get their results out into the world faster.  The High-Z team published first, in 1998, with the Supernova team publishing just a few weeks later.

As a result of this globalization of science, the scientific process is now being managed behind closed doors. Announcements are literally stage-managed, announced months later, to great fanfare, and with convincing sigma levels to add to their veracity.  Sigma levels measure the significance of an experimental result as compared to random, chance data.  For example, the reporting that the LIGO data has a 5 sigma confidence level means that the chances that the LIGO data is simply random noise is 1 in 3.5 million.  The Higgs Boson was announced with similar levels of sigma confidence. These sigma confidence levels make the announcements themselves seem to be pre-vetted so that no further checking need be done; or so that anyone who does come along and successfully pokes holes in the data or the conclusion is automatically operating at a severe credibility disadvantage.  To my mind, this represents a significant, fundamental change in how science is done.

Indeed, LIGO has already announced the construction of another, similar gravitational wave detector in India to continue with and expand the work being done.  Millions of dollars are literally riding on the ability of these teams to produce – to announce discoveries.

Please don’t interpret what I’m saying here as my setting forth that there is some kind of grand conspiracy regarding these discoveries, or any other big scientific discoveries.  I mean nothing of the sort.  I am simply setting forth the fact that in this new era of mega-science, the method of doing that science is changing – and not before our eyes.

Indeed, after CERN announced the Higgs Boson discovery in 2012, Peter Higgs shared the Nobel Prize for it virtually immediately, just 15 months later in 2013.  This, too represents a fundamental change in how science is acknowledged.  Typically, there is a delay of roughly at least a dozen years or so between the announcement of a discovery and the awarding of the Prize.  With the accelerating universe discovery made in 1998, no Nobel Prize was forthcoming for this fundamental, breakthrough discovery for another dozen years, in 2011.  While I’m sure that the LHC science is correct, that the Higgs Boson has indeed been discovered, I have to think that they rushed the awarding of the Prize because they wanted Higgs to receive it while he was still alive.

This is all very nice, he totally does deserve it, and it makes me feel good for the old guy that he did finally get his Prize and his well-deserved recognition.  But it could set a bad precedent.  As far as I know, no discovery that has resulted in the awarding of the Nobel Prize has ever been overturned.  This is mostly due to allowing this long lag period between the discovery and the award, such that the discovery can thoroughly go through the peer-review process.  With the Higgs Boson, there was literally no lag period whatsoever.

With all that being said, make no mistake about it:  just like with the Higgs, I do believe that this latest LIGO discovery of gravitational waves is fully correct.  But I hope that the people on the team who most contributed to the discovery do not win the Nobel Prize for a number of years yet, until this has percolated among whatever scientists are left in the field of gravitational waves, but were not a part of the LIGO team, so that they have a chance to examine it thoroughly.

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