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Gravitational Waves Were the Worst-Kept Secret in Science

Two merging black holes produced gravitational waves that swept through Earth, exciting not only scientists but a frenzied rumor mill. (SXS Collaboration)
Two merging black holes produced gravitational waves that swept through Earth, exciting not only scientists but a frenzied rumor mill. (SXS Collaboration)

Now that we know the big news—scientists have observed gravitational waves, produced by a pair of merging black holes—let’s revisit the clustercuss of a quagmire in which it was announced. While the scientists kept quiet about their discovery, it quickly became one of worst-kept secrets in the scientific world.

That’s because rumor-hungry scientists and journalists refused to let the scientists looking for gravitational waves, the LIGO team, drive its own train. Given the rigor with which a breakthrough of this magnitude is evaluated, not only do these premature disclosures not serve readers, they’re irresponsible, arguably unprofessional, and potentially harmful.

It started way back in September, when physicist Lawrence Krauss sent out this tweet:

Krauss then doubled down on that rumor in mid-January, tweeting that his earlier statement had been confirmed. The disclosure primed a rumor mill that churned nearly nonstop for weeks, adding unnecessary chatter to a universe that’s already overwhelmed with sound. For a month, blog after blog after news story after tweet reported an evolving set of rumors about how, where, and what the LIGO team would announce. Earlier this week, when an upcoming LIGO press conference was announced, coverage dialed up to 11 — but at least there was something tangible to hang speculation on.

As a science journalist, I found the spectacle enormously frustrating to observe, and the coverage seemed eerily ignorant of the disaster that unfolded two years ago when a different team claimed to have detected a different species of gravitational waves.

In 2014, the team running the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole announced the discovery of primordial gravitational waves, or imprints left over from a rapid period of cosmic expansion just after the Big Bang. But the BICEP2 team hadn’t yet submitted their results to a peer-reviewed journal; in the aftermath of the announcement, it became clear that the team’s analysis contained serious flaws, and when scientists examined the data further, the detection disappeared.

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of others, LIGO scientists have said they wouldn’t make an announcement before their paper passed peer review and was on its way to publication in an academic journal. Given that the team didn’t even submit its paper to Physical Review Letters until January 21, at the time Krauss was tweeting and reporters were writing, nobody was ready to announce anything. Nobody was going to confirm those swirling rumors, no matter how good the information we had was.

Suppose rumors of the LIGO team’s discovery were premature, and the signal fizzled beneath the weight of peer review or the scientific process. The damage – to the LIGO team, to the field of gravitational wave astronomy (especially given both historical and recent high-profile SNAFUS), to sources, to your own credibility – that could have been done by spreading these rumors vastly outweighed what little could be gained from a premature disclosure. The LIGO team would have appeared to fail at something it had never publicly promised to deliver at this point.

Conversely, to state the obvious, except for the potential loss of clicks on your page, there is no harm in waiting for the LIGO team to make their announcement.

Now, I have to wonder, is there value in reporting a rumor you can’t confirm? It’s reckless journalism. Sure, entertainment and political reporters do this kind of thing all the time, but that doesn’t make it right. How does it benefit your readers? Maybe, if you write for a publication that’s geared toward scientists, there’s merit in letting them know what their peers may or may not be up to, in lifting the curtain and taking a glimpse behind the scenes. But a general audience? I’d argue there isn’t much of a reason to jump into the fray, and many reasons to stay out of it.

With a discovery this significant, it is irresponsible to abandon professional decorum and get swept up in excitement. That’s not our job as journalists, and I’m quite sure it’s not great behavior for scientists, either. I’m not arguing that we all need to abide by a flawed and archaic embargo system, where we all agree not to publish something until an agreed-upon time, or that we need to align ourselves with scientific interests rather than doing our jobs of being objective and holding truth to power. I’m just suggesting that we hold ourselves and our motivations to higher standards and consider our decisions in the context of the audience we serve and the potential consequences.

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Help! I’m Trapped in a Drop of Water

I am looking at a blob of water. Not pond water. Not pool water. Just ordinary H2O floating about in what appears to be zero gravity. And inside its wetness there’s a passenger, a goldfish, a very alive goldfish …


… that is trying desperately to escape—or so it seems. It flings itself at the blob’s edge, pushing it outward.


Then it tries to get out the back. That’s its head peeping through.


Then it charges and stretches the skin of the bubble almost to the breaking point.


But try as it might, it can’t get free. Poor little fish, I thought. It’s a prisoner.

I found it, the fish and its floating prison, on my favorite fluid dynamics blog, FYFD, which is curated by aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp. She had posted the video version produced by Professor Mark Weislogel and his students at Portland State University in Oregon. They used a “drop tower”— basically, a free-falling elevator—to create near-weightless conditions. So they’re the ones who packed the goldfish into its droplet-y cage. Here it is in full “get me out of here” motion.

What a struggle! As Nicole put it on her blog:

For years, I have wondered what a fish swimming in microgravity would look like. Finally, my curiosity has been rewarded. Here is a sphere of water in microgravity, complete with a fish. Personally, I am impressed that, despite the fish’s best efforts, the surface tension of the water is strong enough to keep it confined. This may not bode well for microgravity swimming pools at space hotels.

Got it. Fifty years from now, when I book my room at the Hotel Galactica a hundred miles from Earth, I’m not bringing a swimsuit. And anyway, who flies to the edge of space to go for a swim? Not me. Not you. We’d go for the view—obviously. So this video shouldn’t have bothered me. But after I saw it once, then again, then yet again, something about it didn’t seem … um … quite right.

EXCUSE ME, but …

What, exactly, is holding that fish inside the blob? Could it be the water? Here on Earth, fish have no trouble breaking through a pond surface to snatch a fly or a bug. Yes, the pond surface is a little resistant due to molecular or surface tension, but a goldfish is stronger than water. It whips its tail, propels itself up, and grabs lunch. No problem.

Is there something about zero gravity that changes that? I called my friend Henry Reich, author/illustrator and physics explainer over at Minute Physics. I showed him the video and asked, Is this fish trying to escape? And if it is, why can’t it get free?

“This fish is thrashing, yes,” he told me on the phone, “but I have a hunch it isn’t trying to escape. I think it’s testing its surroundings …”

Me: What do you mean “testing”?
Henry Reich: Well, I can’t think of any good reason why the fish couldn’t break through, even though it’s at zero gravity.
Me: So the surface isn’t holding it in?
HR: No, I don’t think so, and if you look at its fins and tail, you can see what’s really going on. Up close, you’ll see it’s paddling up to the edge, pushing forward and then, just when it could escape, its peddling back.
Me: You can see that?
HR: Yeah, look back at the video, and watch the fins. And the curled back tail. That’s what you’ll see …

I did. And I’m not sure if I saw what Reich saw. He sent me a video of goldfish swimming backward, and I couldn’t quite tell if my fish was doing what that fish did.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But just to go along with his notion, I asked Reich: If our goldfish was able to burst out of the blob—if physics didn’t prevent it—what’s making it stay? Henry said, OK, remember that a) I am not a goldfish, and b) This is just a wild guess, but …

HR: I think it’s scared.
Me: Scared?
HR: Yes.
Me: Of what? It’s a goldfish.
HR: Of the strangeness of being in a bubble of water.

For millennia, he went on to say, fish have evolved in rivers, lakes, ponds, seas—places where the surface was always “up,” or above them. Fish have no experience with surfaces that are underneath them or to the left or right.

So here’s this poor fish that finds edges in all the wrong places. It’s encountering a world that’s totally strange, and it’s poking about, testing, and discovering—uh oh—an edge here, and, oh my, an edge here too?

Pardon the unpardonable anthropomorphism, but this fish is freaking out. “It’s thinking, This is weird,” says Reich.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

So maybe the bubble is not caging our fish? I have another physicist pal, Aatish Bhatia (whom I play with over at Noticing.co, where we solve puzzles together). He suggested that it’s possible the blob of water is pushing back on our fish—at least a little. Water at microgravity likes to be sphere-shaped. I might resist being splatted and stretched because, says Aatish, “The ideal shape of a water drop would be round … It’s the most compact shape possible.” So the water might be pressing back at the fish’s thrashes, but, like Reich, Aatish says do not pity this fish.

It’s no prisoner. It can break free. And then, lo and behold, Aatish proved it!

“Born Free, Free as the Wind Blows”

On October 23, 2014, Weislogel published a YouTube video from Portland State University. It was a lecture he gave, and I don’t know how Aatish found this, but 27 minutes in, up there on the big screen, is our entombed fish, the very one I saw—but with a different ending!

Apparently, the video on the fluid dynamics site was chopped, and in real life, our fish escapes! It flings itself out of the water blob, and breaks through! Here’s the moment:


But Wait …

My heart leapt at the sight, until I thought, Wait a second, where did the fish go? It’s in an elevator dropping six floors at 55 miles an hour in a near weightless state heading to the ground floor of the engineering building. When the elevator lands this fish is going to, um, land with it. Did they retrieve it? Give it a medal? A martyr’s burial?

I called Weislogel.

Not to worry, he told me. The fish (not a goldfish, actually, but a neon tetra) belonged to his son’s friend. This was a high school experiment done on campus, and there were a number of fish involved, all of them on loan “from somebody’s aquarium.”

The one in that video, he said, was the “most curious” of the bunch. Many stayed stock still during weightlessness. Some curled. This one poked, probed, and, because it was so lively, it probably made several trips. It was his favorite.

OK, but—what about the landing?

“No fish was harmed in the making of this video,” Weislogel said in an announcer’s voice. When gravity kicked back in, both the blob of water and the fish settled softly (“like a baby in the womb kind of thing”) into a receiving bowl placed at the base of the chamber. Nobody died. All were, gently, returned to the aquarium.

Of course. I completely forgot this experiment was conducted in Portland, Oregon, the town that’s made unpleasantness illegal. If this story ever becomes a plotline on the TV show Portlandia, each fish will have its own monogrammed landing pillow.

I should never have worried.

Special thanks to Henry Reich, who was coming off a plane from Cambodia when he got my “Help, what’s this fish doing?” message and, before getting on his next plane, called to tell me his nutty—but, as it turned out, totally accurate – opinion of what was going on. And thanks also to Aatish Bhatia, who’s my partner over at the other blog, and the guy I go to to when I can’t figure someting out, because he always can (and would have found the Higgs boson in two minutes somewhere on the Internet, no need for an atom smasher, if he’d only been asked). He can find anything.

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Type Me a Tower: Assembling Real Structures With Only a Keyboard

This was the dream, right? To go from bits, from 101001110011110000, to actual atoms, to sit at your computer and—just by typing—manipulate things in the real world. Like, for example, putting blocks on top of blocks, building bridges, toppling towers, just by tapping commands on a touch screen.

Eleven years ago, science fiction writer Bruce Sperling imagined how, from a distance, we might stack, assemble, and disassemble not just tinker toys but also “big hefty skull-crackingly solid things that you can pick up and throw.” Making digital information physical, he said, is “the world that needs conquering.”

Well, sound the trumpets. Or maybe the piccolos. The conquering has begun. And in the most charming way.

Dancing Floors

This month engineers at the Tangible Media Group at MIT unveiled a new way to stack blocks. It’s so cool to see. It’s like you’re sitting in your living room and suddenly the floor magically starts pirouetting up and down, gently moving the furniture, stacking the furniture, toppling the furniture—and with such grace! If Fred Astaire were to come back as a floor with Ginger Rogers as a block, they’d look like this:

Kinetic Blocks from Tangible Media Group on Vimeo.

Five engineers did this. They are led by the MIT Media Lab’s Professor Hiroshi Ishii, who wanted “to give kinetic ability to otherwise inanimate objects,” which was done by pushing pins. The pins, in turn, were pushed by “tangible user interfaces,” software programs that created all those thrusts, leaps, and—my favorite—the “shadowing” exercise, where a hand moves cubes in one place and the movement is mirrored at a distance. Pretty elegant engineering.

Does this mean that one day somebody far off (maybe on a separate planet) will be able to “build” an identical structure remotely? Or move it? Or take it apart? Or, instead of a floor or carpets or cushions, maybe one day even air can be pushed and pulled to rearrange a distant object? I don’t know where all this leads, but clearly playing with blocks is not what it used to be.

Kinematic? What’s Kinematic?

At the end of the video, having tried ordinary blocks and magnetic blocks, the team switches to what are called “kinematic” blocks. I’d never heard of those. I looked them up.

They aren’t the future. They’re already here, little modules that attach, twist, and wriggle—no cables necessary. They’re suitable for five-year-olds and totally delightful. Adding them to the mix, the team says, creates new “degrees of freedom” for potential users. With pins pushing below and levers moving within, building blocks will soon move like animals.

You don’t see that in the MIT video; their kinematic blocks stay mostly quiet and mysterious, but in German kindergartens, you can see what future blocks might do. Somewhere in space R2D2 is weeping. Take a look:


This isn’t the first time the Tangible Media Group has worked with pins; They have an amazing video that shows how you can sit in one location and use the pin interface to move distant objects; Your real hands get digitally turned into ‘ghost’ hands, and you can move things in a room you are nowhere near! I think you ought to take a peek … here.

When my producer, Becky, read this post, she told me about a movie, “Big Hero 6” where the build-anything-anytime-anywhere notion becomes a glorious movie fantasy. A boy named Hiro gets to walk on air, because he ‘imagines steps’ and once imagined, they spring into being, right under his feet. This isn’t bits to atoms. This is neurons to atoms…and even the Media Lab isn’t doing that.

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Conan’s Umwelt: How a Dog Sniffs


This is my puppy, Conan, and the reason I’ve been buying a lot of dog books. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, dog books are for skimming, not reading. They’re hokey, repetitive, poorly written and peppered with pseudoscience. But Friday I found an exception: Inside of a Doga fascinating, science-rich story of how dogs think and perceive the world.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, worked for the New Yorker before becoming a scientist specializing in canine cognition. Unlike the other books, which focus on how to make a dog do what you want, this one asks, what does a dog want to do, and why?

Early on, Horowitz introduces German biologist Jakob von Uexküll and his concept of umwelt. The word translates to ‘environment’ or ‘surroundings’. The concept is that two animals can share the same environment but experience it quite differently.