Gravitational Waves: Narrative & Perspective

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A few days ago,an international team of scientists announced a landmark discovery. The discovery was the final validation of more than a century of cutting-edge theoretical physics, the vindication of a decade-long, billion-dollar gamble of federal research funding, and a virtually guaranteed Nobel Prize. It was a moment that will likely come to shape our understanding of the universe for centuries to come. Yet somehow it is losing the struggle to capture people’s attention.

To be fair, for a scientific discovery, it’s gotten pretty good press. The NSF team that led the project did a great job with the announcement and press conference, and it appeared in a fair number widely read publications, including the front page of USA Today. Yet many inside and outside the scientific community seemed somehow nonplussed, either by the discovery or the reaction to it. The attitude was typified by Kirk Englehardt in a blog post about the collective indifference. Why, Kirk asks, has this story not connected with a broader audience? Why is it not captivating massive public attention? I’ve been thinking about this question myself in the days since the story broke, and I think there are two major answers: one is a question of narrative, and the other a question of perspective.

First, the story suffers from some fundamental deficiencies in terms of narrative. The essence of any narrative is what I call the “narrative proposition,” the question posed to the audience, which establishes some hero (the protagonist) and some goal (the objective) toward which she strives. Narratives work because they allow the audience to empathize with the hero, feeling what she feels, as she struggles over or through obstacles (the antagonists) toward the objective.

The problem with this story is that the protagonist is not abundantly clear. The work was done by a huge group of people over a long period of years, so it’s harder for the audience to single out a character with whom to identify. The second problem here is that the objective is a bit muddled. Was the objective to detect the waves? Or to validate the theory? Why did we want that? Worst of all, there’s not a clear depiction of the trouble they encountered along the way. Protagonists have to have antagonists to battle against in order to become objects of empathy.

Now, to be fair, a good writer can manufacture these things. The best coverage I read was the piece in The New York Times by Dennis Overbye. Overbye knows his business, and he does a great job establishing both heroes and goals in the top of his story, before talking about their various troubles. Critics might argue that his telling over-emphasizes the contributions of a few individuals, but in my opinion he does so in service of a narrative, and that’s why it works.

But there’s a larger, deeper problem lurking around the coverage of this story, and it’s a problem of perspective. Both Englehardt and a number of others have complained that the story, despite resonating throughout the scientific community, hasn’t landed powerfully with “the public.” Why, they cry, aren’t “the masses” paying attention to this story? I hear this attitude frequently from scientists, and I think it’s evidence of a lack of perspective.

Most people aren’t playing attention to gravitational waves because most people don’t know anything about science, and don’t care. And despite the fact that many of us in the science communication business don’t like it, that is probably as it should be. Modern science is complex, and abstract, and hard to understand. It matters a lot to those of us who practice it, but it doesn’t matter much to the rest of the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I am often puzzled by the insistence by scientists that “the general public” should know more about science. We want every cab driver and carpenter to pay attention to gravitational waves. Why? We don’t ask that of the humanities. If a previously unknown work of Geoffrey Chaucer emerged, would we expect it to be the hot topic in every neighborhood pub? We, like most people, want people to care about our stuff only because it is our stuff.

The truth is that the communication work done on the LIGO story is a ringing success. I don’t know many non-scientists who paid attention to it, but I know ZERO scientists who didn’t. Among people who care about science, who pay attention to it, and who are curious about it (which includes almost everyone who participates in it, funds it, or regulates it) heard all about this story. Did it make headlines the way football does? No. Nothing the NSF does will ever compete with anything that happens in the NFL. That’s just a fact of life, and we should all just learn to live with it. The nice thing about science is that it works whether people believe in it or not.

 

Tim Miller is the author of Muse of Fire: Storytelling & The Art of Science Communication, and a member of the faculty in the Department of Digital Media & Design at the University of Connecticut.

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