by Joey Shapiro Key and Martin Hendry

June 2016

Volume 12 - Nature Physics

from SCI-Hub Website



Joey Shapiro Key is Director of Education and Outreach for the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville, Texas 78520, USA.

Martin Hendry is Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow,

Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK.






The announcement confirming

the discovery of gravitational waves

created sensational media interest.

But educational outreach and communication

must remain high on the agenda

if the general public is to understand

such a landmark result.


On 11 February 2016 the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LCS) and Virgo collaboration (LSC and the Virgo Collaboration are separate organizations, they cooperate closely and are referred to collectively as "LVC"), announced the discovery of gravitational waves and the first observation of a binary black hole merger. 1


The physics community has been working towards these discoveries since Einstein's theory of general relativity predicted gravitational waves and black holes 100 years ago. 2, 3


It is an especially salient example of work that takes dedication and patience over generations of scientists.



  • How does the scientific community share the excitement of this long-awaited discovery with the world?


  • How can the importance of the discovery be communicated to a public that is not familiar with the details of the work?


  • And how can the entire history of the field of gravitational wave astronomy be condensed to maximize interest and impact for non-experts?

Modern modes of communication require swift reactions, distilled messages, and new content backed up by in-depth coverage of the human, historical and fundamental science stories.


To assess the impact of the news of a scientific discovery it is important to differentiate between public excitement and public understanding. Efforts on both fronts are valid and important but it is harder to evidence the latter: a genuine increase in public understanding.

That said, we can surely agree that everyone should be able to appreciate something about how important and exciting physics is, regardless of their academic background, social demographic or native language.


The discovery of gravitational waves and the merger of two black holes are awe-inspiring events, even for those who do not have a deep understanding of general relativity.


Similarly, one can love a Mozart symphony or a Renoir portrait without expertise in symphonic writing or impressionist painting, and the beauty of Olympic athletics can be admired by a worldwide audience, including a majority of people who do not participate in any particular sport.

The Education and Public Outreach Working Group of the LVC helped to shape the collaboration strategy for informing the world about our scientific breakthrough.


As a group of professional scientists as well as educators, outreach professionals, and students, we aimed to assemble a range of resources designed for different levels and for a variety of goals that would convey both the excitement and importance of our discoveries and (as best we could) how those discoveries had been made possible.

To what level of detail do we hope to have each individual engage with our science and expand their understanding of the Universe? With little or no mathematics we almost always have to explain physics using analogies that are imperfect, but that can convey core ideas.


For example, 'ripples in the fabric of space-time' is the common analogy for gravitational waves, but what does the 'ripple' actually refer to?


Waves on the surface of a rubber sheet or trampoline do not 'stretch and squeeze' the distances between points on the sheet, so the analogy doesn't work to explain the effect of a passing gravitational wave on the LIGO interferometers.


Indeed, physicists themselves were confused about the nature of gravitational waves for 40 years, and took an additional 60 years to build an experiment capable of detecting them!

We therefore adopted a multi-level approach.


We developed accessible resources using commonplace (if imperfect) analogies such as the stretched rubber sheet, and simplified schematics such as our interferometer animations, 4 designed to give even the casual viewer some clear insight into what gravitational waves are and how we detected them.


In parallel, we prepared in-depth material designed to address more detailed questions about the science and technology behind gravitational wave detection - principally making this material available via our website. 5


A key example here was our science summaries, 6 in-depth articles written without technical language but conveying the essential scientific arguments and conclusions presented in our detection papers.


Our products also included translations of the press release into 18 languages, an educator guide for teachers, new simulations and animations, and tutorials for using the public LIGO data through the LIGO Open Science Center. 7

We also sought to promote our outreach efforts vigorously using social media, formulating a comprehensive plan that would direct followers to the very latest news, provide clear pathways to more in-depth resources, and offer opportunities to engage directly with us as LVC researchers.


These included, for example, an e-mail address ( that since February has attracted hundreds of enquiries from across the globe, posing some highly challenging and perceptive questions to the collaboration.

Finally, our strategy highlighted the importance of not just our scientific breakthroughs, but also the scientific methodology that underpinned them.


We emphasized three key messages in particular.

  • Firstly, detecting gravitational waves was extremely challenging and a quest that many had thought impossible (in the words of LIGO Executive Director Dave Reitze, it was the equivalent of the Apollo 'moonshot'). Thus our success was a triumph for the long-term vision and investment of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other national funding agencies.


  • Secondly, we highlighted that our discovery relied on the teamwork and cooperation of many hundreds of scientists and engineers from dozens of countries across the globe - mirroring the methodology of many contemporary 'big science' projects.


  • And thirdly, to quote Carl Sagan, we conveyed the concept that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

The 5 month delay between our detection and its announcement involved a huge amount of meticulous analysis, leaving no stone unturned in the quest to convince ourselves that we detected a real signal.


In other words, this was part and parcel of the scientific process.


Box 1 - Making Waves about Gravitational Waves

The worldwide response to the announcement that gravitational waves had been discovered wasn't restricted to the mainstream media.


The sheer breadth and depth of interest it generated was a testimony to the importance of the result:

  • Newspaper and television news coverage of the gravitational wave detection included front page articles in the

  • New York Times, and on the CNN and BBC websites. A total of 961 newspaper front pages from 12 February featured the discovery according to Newseum, which included it on their list of dates in 2016 deemed to be of historical significance - and it was the only positive historical news day selected in the past 6 months. 8

  • Members of the US Congress met with leaders from the NSF and LIGO in a hearing that has been lauded as a bipartisan show of support.

  • The LIGO Scientific Collaboration Facebook page top post reached 665,000 people, with 15,000 likes and 2,800 shares. From 8 February to 8 March the page reached 1.5 million people, 7,300 shares, 42,400 reactions, and gained 8,700 new followers.

  • Caltech media reported 70 million aggregate impressions on all tweets using the #gravitationalwaves, #LIGO, and #EinsteinWasRight hashtags.

  • The @LIGO Twitter top tweet had 639,000 impressions, 4,116 retweets, and 2,996 likes. From 8 February to 8 March the account had 4.7 million impressions and gained 19,200 new followers.


    The top LIGO Twitter mention was from President Obama, who tweeted as @POTUS:

"Einstein was right! Congrats to @NSF and @LIGO on detecting gravitational waves - a huge breakthrough in how we understand the Universe", with 80,000 engaged, 9,500 retweets, and 21,000 likes.

  • The PhD Comics on gravitational waves has had 1.5 million views. 9

  • Brian Greene appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to discuss LIGO and the discovery of gravitational waves. His appearance has had over 2.2 million views on YouTube. 10

  • In a YouGov survey conducted in the UK, a third of people polled thought that the discovery mattered a 'fair amount' or 'a great deal'.

  • Our Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on 12 February provided 923 comments, with LVC scientists answering more than 90% of the questions asked 11 and sparked a separate thread discussing the LVC AMA on

  • The NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day featuring the gravitational wave discovery 12 had over a million views over 11-16 February, and was translated into over 20 languages on external mirror sites.

  • Poet and non-scientist Missy Assink 13 read her original poem GW150914 or a Love Story Between Two Black Holes at Spoken Word Paris in March 2016. 14

Our efforts to communicate the importance of the discovery have certainly helped to build public interest in physics research (see Box 1 above). And generating excitement is undoubtedly the first step towards promoting understanding and awareness among the general public.


Although we can never measure the exact impact this discovery will have on society, it's clear that there is a wave of new physics fans across the globe.





  1. Abbott, B. P. et al. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 (2016)

  2. Einstein, A. & Sitzungsber, K. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 688 (1916)

  3. Einstein, A. & Sitzungsber, K. Preuss. Akad. Wiss. 1, 154 (1918)





  8. Discovery of gravitational waves Newseum -