June 26, 2017

Review: Gravity’s Ghost by Harry Collins.

Out from Chicago Press!

Think your latest scientific quest is an impossible challenge? Let me introduce you to the team at the twin Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatories (LIGO) and show you what they face. This week’s review installment is Gravity’s Ghost: Scientific Discovery in the Twenty-first Century by Harry Collins and out from Chicago University Press. Gravity’s Ghost picks up where Gravity’s Shadow left off, and after a brief synopsis of the history of gravity wave detection efforts thus far, the author settles in with a snapshot of the LIGO-Virgo effort to detect these illusive beasts.

Fans of this space will recall our past visit to the LIGO facility based in Livingston, Louisiana as well as frequent news posts reported in this space such as the constraints that the sensitivity of the detectors placed on the Big Bang and the recent “passing of the envelope” that occurred for the team. Ironically, we were reading Gravity’s Ghost when news reached us via LIGO scientist Amber Stuver’s blog Living LIGO of the current affair that eerily mirrored the “Equinox Event” discussed in great detail by Gravity’s Ghost. This is how 21st century science is done; far from the lone researcher working in a cluttered basement, the world of LIGO touches on international collaboration, 72 step verification checklists, and the punishing statistical criterion that is 6-sigma. Extreme claims do demand extreme evidence, and the LIGO teams go to great efforts to illuminate every possibility until that day that a positive gravitational wave detect can be announced. In fact, 6 sigma is so discerning that other fields of science would simply not exist were it the gold standard.

Reading the book, I find it fascinating that we as a species can conduct a search for gravity waves at all. These distortions in space and time are generated in vast quantities by pulsar and/or black hole mergers, and LIGO has the capability to detect these events when in ‘science mode’ out to a radius of 15 mega-parsecs. Of course, the rumblings of our planet, land tides from the Moon and Sun, and your morning commute into Baton Rouge all shake LIGO more than a passage of a distant merger would.

Just how confident are scientists that gravitational wave astronomy is “just around the bend?” (bad pun intended) Well, in 2004, Ladbroke’s opened a book on detection prior to 2010 at 500:1. After several well known scientists jumped onboard, Ladbroke lowered the odds to 3:1 (very non- 6-Sigma!) before surreptitiously closing the bet. 2010 may have come and gone without a detection, but AdLIGO is due to come on line in 2014-15, and if the proposed Laser Interferometry Space-borne Array (LISA) ever makes it to the pad, gravitational wave astronomy could be a flourishing field of research astronomy within the decade!



  1. [...] there’s another unique observatory on the hunt for gravity’s ghost: LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory. We’ve written about this unique [...]

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