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Gravity’s Ghost

Scientific Discovery in the Twenty-first Century

In theory, at least, gravitational waves do exist. We are constantly bathed in gravitational radiation, which is generated when stars explode or collide and a portion of their mass becomes energy that ripples out like a disturbance on the surface of a serene pond. But unfortunately no gravitational wave has ever been directly detected even though the search has lasted more than forty years.

As the leading chronicler of the search for gravitational waves, Harry Collins has been right there with the scientists since the start. The result of his unprecedented access to the front lines of physical science is Gravity’s Ghost, a thrilling chronicle of high-stakes research and cutting-edge discovery. Here, Collins reveals that scientific discovery and nondiscovery can turn on scientific traditions and rivalries, that ideal statistical analysis rests on impossible procedures and unattainable knowledge, and that fact in one place is baseless assumption in another. He also argues that sciences like gravitational wave detection, in exemplifying how the intractable is to be handled, can offer scientific leadership a moral beacon for the twenty-first century. In the end, Gravity’s Ghost shows that discoveries are the denouements of dramatic scientific mysteries.

200 pages | 12 halftones, 2 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2010

History: General History

History of Science

Physical Sciences: Theoretical Physics

Sociology: Theory and Sociology of Knowledge



M. Dickinson | Choice

“This fine book pairs exploratory analysis with the pulse of a detective story. Giving a portrait of the way a community chose to test itself on the threshold of new knowledge, Collins offers the rich sociological insight that can only be won from uncommon experience, from a long-standing dialogue with the community he studies, and from a moral engagement in the future of science.”

Richard Staley, author of Einstein's Generation: The Origins of the Relativity Revolution

“A sociologist embedded (with full access!) in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration chronicles the search for gravitational waves. Though physicists, with very few exceptions, are in no doubt that gravitational waves exist, evidence for their passage through the new kilometer-length interferometers would nevertheless represent the scientific event of the twenty-first century. Harry Collins has turned the initial joined search exploiting the LIGO and Virgo instruments into a detective novel that exquisitely describes the social processes associated with discovery (and statistical analysis) in a large collaborative effort.”

Francis Halzen, University of Wisconsin–Madison and Director of Icecube Neutrino Detector Project

“The gravity wave community and Harry Collins have done it again: throwing unexpected and brilliant new light onto the sociology of science. Collins’s new book is cannily constructed around a mystery—a false signal may or may not have been introduced into the latest gravity wave detectors in order to check their validity and reliability. Is there a signal; will the scientists spot it; and what does their spotting (or not) of it tell us about how scientific evidence is put together? The book is a great read, is lovingly detailed and is every bit as smart as one would expect on the basis of Collins’s earlier writings.”

Steven Yearley, University of Edinburgh

Gravity’s Ghost reads like a good mystery novel, with an unexpected twist. A significant contribution to the study of scientific practice.”

Allan Franklin, University of Colorado

Table of Contents

1 Gravitational Wave Detection
2 The Equinox Event: Early Days
3 Resistance to Discovery
4 The Equinox Event: The Middle Period
5 The Hidden Histories of Statistical Tests
6 The Equinox Event: The Denouement
7 Gravity’s Ghost
Envoi: Science in the Twenty-First Century
Postscript: Thinking after Arcadia
Appendix 1: The Burst Group Checklist as of October 2007
Appendix 2: The Arcadia Abstract

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