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Gravity’s Shadow

The Search for Gravitational Waves

According to the theory of relativity, we are constantly bathed in gravitational radiation. When stars explode or collide, a portion of their mass becomes energy that disturbs the very fabric of the space-time continuum like ripples in a pond. But proving the existence of these waves has been difficult; the cosmic shudders are so weak that only the most sensitive instruments can be expected to observe them directly. Fifteen times during the last thirty years scientists have claimed to have detected gravitational waves, but so far none of those claims have survived the scrutiny of the scientific community. Gravity’s Shadow chronicles the forty-year effort to detect gravitational waves, while exploring the meaning of scientific knowledge and the nature of expertise.

Gravitational wave detection involves recording the collisions, explosions, and trembling of stars and black holes by evaluating the smallest changes ever measured. Because gravitational waves are so faint, their detection will come not in an exuberant moment of discovery but through a chain of inference; for forty years, scientists have debated whether there is anything to detect and whether it has yet been detected. Sociologist Harry Collins has been tracking the progress of this research since 1972, interviewing key scientists and delineating the social process of the science of gravitational waves.

Engagingly written and authoritatively comprehensive, Gravity’s Shadow explores the people, institutions, and government organizations involved in the detection of gravitational waves. This sociological history will prove essential not only to sociologists and historians of science but to scientists themselves.

The author’s gravitational wave project website.

864 pages | 39 halftones, 31 line drawings, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2004

History: History of Technology

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"Gravity’s Shadow is an astonishing achievement, and gives the lie to the charge that sociologists of science have no idea how science really works. It is surely destined to become a definitive study of a science in the making."

Robert Matthews | New Scientist

"Over 800 pages long, the book charts the story of the quest to detect gravitational waves from the first small-scale experiments of the 1960s to the current generation of multimillion dollar observatories. It is a story replete with controversy, personalities, and large sums of money."

Edwin Cartlidge | Physics World

"Collins has presented us with an enthralling investigation into the way in which big science advances....a perfect case study in the sociology of science."

David Hughes | Times Higher Education Supplement

"A superb reference text on the history of one branch of physics and it will long be seen as a definitive study. . . . The more I delve into this book the more I like it. I think it is a work that will go down in history. It will be a significant book for historians and philosophers of science. It is also an interesting book for gravity-wave physicists to dabble in. It should be in university libraries, and for the average physicist it is definitely worth a browse."

David Blair | Physics World

"[It is] very timely that Harry Collins has written a first-class study of how contemporary experimental physics operates. Collins is a distinguished sociologist, and in Gravity’s Shadow he demonstrates why it is important to go beyond superficial characterizations of science to study how groups of scientists actually work. . . . The resulting narrative is as provocative as it is convincing. There is a lot written by philosophers and others about how science is supposed to work. But this is one of the very few books I’ve read that tries to help the reader understand what really goes on these days in the world of big science. . . . This is a book that everyone who cares about the future of science should read."

Lee Smolin | American Scientist

"The book will be valuable to readers who desire a detailed account of this growing field [of gravity-wave detection] and its sociological aspects, and to those interested in the history of science. It will also be helpful to students and others who wish to get first-hand accounts of what experimental physics can be like in practice.
"I do not know of any other book quite like Gravity’s Shadow. Collins has publicly announced his plan to produce a sequel when
gravity waves have been unambiguously detected on Earth. I hope he does not have too long to wait."

Ronald W. P. Drever | Physics Today

"Gravity’s Shadow will function very well as an introduction to sociological studies of science. In addition to an explicit defense of sociological methodologies, Collins explains in detail and uses profitably many of the classic categories and approaches of the field. . . . Garvity’s Shadow is an extremely impressive piece of scholarship that does justice to three decades of fioeldwork."

Matthew Stanley | British Journal of Sociology

"Gravity’s Shadow performs a twofold act of preservation, and an enormous service, by capturing both the historical richness of gravitational wave research and the methodological reflections of one of science studies’ most imaginative and engaging writers."

Edward Jones-Imhotep | Isis

"This book uncompromisingly shows the curbs, returns and negotiations associated with [this] scientific activity. Moreover, as it presents important and valuable sociological data on the funding and patronage of scientific research, it will also engender important discussions on the effectiveness of 20th century scince policies."

Simone Turchetti | Nuncius

Table of Contents

Common Acronyms in Gravitational Wave Research
Introduction Two Kinds of Space-Time
Chapter 1 The Start of a New Science
Chapter 2 From Idea to Experiment
Chapter 3 What Are Gravitational Waves?
Chapter 4 The First Published
Chapter 5 The Reservoir of Doubt
Chapter 6 The First Experiments by Others
Chapter 7 Joe Weber’s Findings Begin to Be Rejected in the Constitutive Forum
Chapter 8 Joe Weber Fights Back
Chapter 9 The Consensus Is Formed
Chapter 10 An Attempt to Break the Regress: The Calibration of Experiments
Chapter 11 Forgotten Waves
Chapter 12 How Waves Spread
Chapter 13 The Start of Cryogenics
Chapter 14 NAUTILUS
Chapter 15 NAUTILUS, November 1996 to June 1998
Chapter 16 The Spheres
Chapter 17 The Start of Interferometry
Chapter 18 Caltech Enters the Game
Chapter 19 The Science of the Life after Death of Room-Temperature Bars
Chapter 20 Scientific Institutions and Life after Death
Chapter 21 Room-Temperature Bars and the Policy Regress
Chapter 22 Scientific Cultures
Chapter 23 Resonant Technology and the National Science Foundation Review
Chapter 24 Ripples and Conferences
Chapter 25 Three More Conferences and a Funeral
Chapter 26 The Downtrodden Masses
Chapter 27 The Funding of LIGO and Its Consequences
Chapter 28 Moving Technology: What Is in a Large Interferometer?
Chapter 29 Moving Earth: The Sites
Chapter 30 Moving People: From Small Science to Big Science
Chapter 31 The Beginning of Coordinated Science
Chapter 32 The Drever Affair
Chapter 33 The End of the Skunk Works
Chapter 34 Regime 3: The Coordinators
Chapter 35 Mechanism versus Magic
Chapter 36 The 40-Meter Team versus the New Management, Continued
Chapter 37 Regime 4 (and 5): The Collaboration
Chapter 38 Pooling Data: Prospects and Problems
Chapter 39 International Collaboration among the Interferometer Groups
Chapter 40 When Is Science? The Meaning of Upper Limits
Chapter 41 Coming On Air: The Study and Science
Chapter 42 Methodology as the Meeting of Two Cultures: The Study, Scientists, and the Public
Chapter 43 Final Reflections: The Study and Sociology
Chapter 44 Joe Weber: A Personal and Methodological Note
Coda: January 2004
Appendix Intro.1 What Is Small?
Appendix Intro.2 Gravitational Waves, Gravitational Radiation, and Gravity Waves: A Note on Terminology
Appendix Intro.3 Roger Babson’s Essay, "Gravity—Our Enemy Number One"
Appendix III.1 Colonial Cringe
Appendix V.1 The Method

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