October 16, 2017
On October 16th at 9:20am, I stepped off the elevator on the 13th floor of the National Press Building, turned a corner, and encountered a wall of reporters. They were lined up along the long hallway, pressed against the wall, eagerly waiting to be let into the conference room. I checked in with the registration desk, Maya Kinley-Hanlon, Student Reporter for the Society of Physics Students Observer, got my highlighter-pink “Press” badge, and stepped into the line. We were all waiting for the doors to open so we could find our seats and hear about the latest discovery in Gravitational Wave physics. Less than two years after the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration had announced their initial detection of Gravitational Waves, and we were waiting for more: a discovery that would rock the astronomical community. For months we had waited and anticipated, and within minutes we would find out what LIGO had detected.
The doors opened and we walked into the small room with low ceilings. Three sections of chairs were fit snugly between the panelist seating on the small stage in the front of the room and the news cameras set up to record history in the back. Reporters rushed to sit down, opening their laptops, turning on their recording devices, and preparing to take notes. The LA Times reporter sitting beside me had her computer open to a live-editing webpage, eager to make updates to her pre-written article. Suddenly, a hush came over the room as one of the workers yelled “Five! Four!” before motioning silently the following “Three!” “Two!” “One!”, and the panelists silently filed in. After the introductions were made, France Córdova, Director of the NSF, took the podium and discussed the NSF’s role in the discovery and her history with LIGO. “Today,” she said with a commanding presence surprising for her small frame, “We are thrilled to announce that scientists have detected gravitational waves coming from the collision of two neutron stars.” She continued with details about the about the amazing effort that went in to the discovery, the fact that over 70 observatories around the world took part in the detection, and how, as an astrophysicist whose interest in science was piqued by neutron stars, she was especially excited by the news. She concluded by addressing Dave Reitze, executive director of the LIGO lab at Caltech, with, “Well Dave, we did it again!”
He followed her with a joyful tone, “We have, for the first time, seen both gravitational waves and light from the collision of two dense, dense, stars” and continued, referencing his initial groundbreaking speech by saying, “this time…we all did it.” It is that message that resonated as each panelist spoke. What was possibly the most amazing feat of this discovery is not just its impact, but also the fact that it was a collaboration between LIGO, VIRGO, and a quarter of all registered astronomers in the world, seen by both ground and space-based detectors. The rest of the hour continued, with each panelist speaking with levity and excitement to a captivated audience: albeit a typing, clacking, and furiously camera-snapping audience. The environment was one of relief and pure joy from the panelists, matched with anxious and eager journalists and film crews. After the panel, journalists engaged with the scientists, each trying to get their own scoop before film crews whisked them away for brightly lit interviews in dim hallways.
The LIGO collaboration has grown up over the past forty years, along with the researchers who have dedicated their lives to it. Until the discovery in 2015, LIGO efforts were hardly known by the public and taken with a large grain of salt by older scientific fields. The researchers of LIGO pushed on, not because they hoped to gain fame or notoriety, but because they believed in what they were doing and were captivated by finding gravitational waves. This made the collaboration one of community and support, and was clearly evident during the press conference. Every scientist on the LIGO panel echoed each other that this most recent discovery was one made and celebrated by a community of people.
This celebration continued at a dinner that evening. During dinner, I sat with LIGO Spokesperson David Shoemaker. We talked about LIGO, but also about growing up in Oregon, our experiences farming: him working on his family’s cherry orchard and me working on my aunt and uncle’s hazelnut orchard, and our opinions on wasps. We talked about his role as spokesperson for the collaboration, and he mentioned that it was a great deal of fun to talk to congress both times he had done so, as they were thrilled to have “real live scientists” to talk to. He noted how they told him they were honored to have him there, and his response? “Me? You’re honored to have me in your room?” And while he felt like he was ready to hibernate post announcement, he loves what he’s doing and has no complaints.
At the end of the night, I sat with astronomer and researcher Vicky Kalogera and LIGO Deputy Spokesperson Laura Cadonati, and they discussed the importance of such a large collaboration. Vicky, who came from a pure astronomy background, talked about how before she joined LIGO, she was used to very small groups, and she grew to understand that you cannot achieve what was announced at the press conference without a collaboration of this size. She smiled, “No individual group can reach this kind of achievement, we need each other.” We talked for over an hour, on how unique the collaboration is, and how important it is to find friends within a group this size. While both women mentioned the struggles they’d faced to get to this point, they also mentioned the reward of how generous nature had been with the timing of detections, and how they enjoy being able to mentor young scientists going forward in a field that is so new and exciting.
Towards the end of dinner, David and Laura were pushed to give a toast. Clearly, neither of them were seeking the spotlight, as they both flushed a bit before being handed drinks and ushered to a central point in the room. “We’d like to propose a toast” David began, “This is a celebration of a remarkable result of observations of LIGO, and a really joyous combination of both this collaboration and our electromagnetic partners, that has turned out remarkably well.” Laura continued, “We want to thank you for this amazing endeavor…it has not always been easy, but the very fact that we got 3500 authors on the same paper, 70 papers on the archives today, and we took down the journal web servers” she said to cheers and applause from the room, “is an amazing accomplishment. I look forward to all of you giving talks to the general public and raising enthusiasm for gravitational wave astrophysics, gravitational wave cosmology, gravitational wave nuclear physics, and the good things that will come. Thank you everyone, and welcome to the new Era.” With that, the room erupted into a thunderous applause.
Moments later, someone mentioned the news was going to play a segment on LIGO’s discovery. The TV’s were turned up full volume, and everyone faced them, silent. The anchor mentioned LIGO and the discovery of the crash of two neutron stars, and the room erupted with applause—and a few whistles—only to give way to hearty, almost giddy, laughter by the whole room when the segment ended only 20 seconds after it had begun. What keeps LIGO researchers going is the hunt for more discovery. Vicky Kalogera put it simply: that no matter what, research is about questions. This is what we can all keep in mind as we step into the research field, and find the efforts we want to dedicate our lives to. I’m thankful to have begun my career in research within the LIGO collaboration. Hopefully, we are surrounded by as much support and joy as LIGO has had, whether we decide to step into gravitational wave efforts or not.