Two weeks ago, physicists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) announced that they had finally detected gravitational waves. These ripples in spacetime were first predicted by Einstein and his general relativity theory. https://www.ligo.caltech.edu/news/ligo20160211
Einstein never believed that we would have the technological capacity to observe these waves, they were too weak to catch. Of course, neither Einstein nor anybody could have predicted the amazing scientific advances that were to take place over the following 100 years.
The announcement from LIGO was preceded by rumours that rapidly spread through social media and it was heavily covered by all news outlets. This maybe common in football transfers or when a politician or banker is caught with his/her hand in the cookie jar, but these are extremely rare events when we talk about Physics and scientific discoveries.
Of course, this is Einstein and Einstein and Einstein’s discoveries and theories are the exception that confirms the rule, he was and remains a pop icon as the image below demonstrates.
Andy Warhol’s Einstein
Richard Feynman with his exuberant personality is another exception of a physicist impacting mainstream media. But what about the others, the great majority? Those scientists who have contributed, in some cases enormously, to shape the world and society we live in today, yet, they remain mostly unknown.
Let’s play a little game of contemporaries:
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). I would bet anybody reading this knows who Lincoln was, but, unless you studied physics or other physical science discipline you wouldn’t know Maxwell. Yet, while it would be hard to pinpoint any influence of Lincoln in today’s way of life and society, Maxwell’s is everywhere, from the internet to the mobile phones to the detection of the gravitational waves or quantum mechanics. Over the next 100 years his influence will continue to grow. In the words of Richard Feynman “From a long view of the history of mankind-seen from, say, ten thousand years from now-there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics”.
Let’s play one more round:
Charles H. Townes (1915-2015) and John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). Sure, we could have chosen other important figures in politics or in social movements like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or whoever you may think, but let’s stick to US presidents. Likewise, we could have chosen other scientist such as Max Plank or Neils Bohr or even more recently, Charles Kao. While one may claim that Kennedy’s influence in society is still significant, Townes’ with his contributions to the discovery of the laser, is everywhere. Lasers are now present in almost every aspect of life from medicine to manufacturing to scientific research to entertainment and laser based technologies are defining the way we interact with each other and with the outside world. Yet, most people have never heard of Charles Townes or the other Laser physics pioneers.
So, what is my point? You may say, scientists should not chase social recognition. Sure, Van Gogh probably did not paint to sell his paintings, but I am sure selling a couple would have made his afternoon absinthe taste sweeter.
My point is, if society can get interested in gravitational waves and neutrinos, they can surely become interested in, often easier to grasp, science. And, increased recognition, followed by increased understanding of what researchers do, will attract more and better people to science and that will benefit all.