Early days in the Sociology of Gravitational Waves

Professor Harry Collins

Contribution to LIGO Newsletter, February, 1999

Contributed by Harry Collins

By way of introduction, I suppose I should begin with a few prefatory remarks about who I am and why I am writing an article for the LIGO Newsletter. The succinct explanation is this: having observed me “lurking in the shadows” of almost every important conference on gravitational wave research these past many years, and after my presentation to the Gravitational Wave International Committee in Paris last December, LIGO’s Deputy Director, Gary Sanders, invited me to write up an account of my work for this newsletter. It was further suggested that I provide some biographical detail so as to allow readers to “spy on me,” in a virtual kind of way. Since no one is interviewing me, nor asking pointed questions, this is probably going to be a self-indulgent ramble. Nevertheless, here we go.

My first study of scientists–part of an MA–examined the ways in which physicists trying to build Transversely Excited, Atmospheric Pressure, CO2 lasers (TEA lasers) actually learned how to do it. I found that British scientists never, or hardly ever, succeeded if they worked strictly from written sources. Often they would think they had built one of the lasers, only to find it would not work. They could succeed–not always, but sometimes–once they had spent considerable time talking with someone who had already made a working device. The model that best fitted the findings was that learning science had much more to do with becoming part of a community than it did with learning “formulae” or “recipes.”

When I started my PhD in 1971, I wanted to continue this study and compare it with what happened in more controversial science. I chanced to read about the detection of gravitational waves in the “New Scientist.”

In 1972 I set off on a journey across North America interviewing scientists involved in four areas, including gravitational waves. As a graduate student I did not have much money but I managed to freeload off friends who had moved to Philadelphia, as well as from an aunt and uncle who lived in Los Angeles. While staying at my Philadelphia friends’ house, I bought a ’64 Ford Galaxy for $200–white, enormous, a car I still regard of as one of the best I’ve ever owned. I drove it some 5000 miles, first on a round-trip to Quebec City, then along Route 66 to Los Angeles and San Francisco, carrying out interviews on the way. Among other things, I confirmed what I had postulated about the TEA-laser builders, and I interviewed everyone in the USA who was in the resonant-bar detection business. I sold the car in LA for $400, and with motels and hamburgers being so cheap outside big cities, the whole trip cost me just two or three hundred pounds net, including air fare.

At the time, all I knew was that I was uncovering some interesting information, seeing plenty of fascinating places, and having a great adventure. I didn’t consider myself to be doing anything particularly special in an academic sense. It turned out, though, that the research papers emerging out of my trip made quite a big impact, and formed the foundation of my career. It was evidently the first time a sociologist had interviewed scientists involved in a controversy and shown the bearing of experimental skill on scientists’ arguments. Though historians were already “knocking on the door,” philosophers of science at the time still tended to treat experiments as quasi-automatic data gathering machines.

In 1975 I made another similar trip, this time driving both ways across America–East-West on a more northerly route and West-East through Texas and Louisiana. I drove an equally cheap car on this occasion too, a Chevy Malibu, which was an absolute wreck. I had to keep a case of oil in the trunk at all times, pouring a pint in every 200 miles to prevent an engine freeze. I did 7000 miles on that journey, and my adventures included buying a recut tire somewhere near Mobile, Alabama, after one of the fronts came right off the rim on a very busy freeway. If you drive across the USA once only, I strongly recommend the middle route through the eroded sandstone plateau of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. I am surprised when, from time to time, I meet Americans who have not visited that extraordinary part of the world.

After 1976 my attention was distracted by Uri Geller and I did a study on the scientists who were studying spoon bending children. We ourselves did a participatory experiment, putting the children in a psychology lab with a one way mirror. There were dummy cameras and dummy observers in the lab, and real cameras and real observers behind the mirror. Most of our kids cheated and the experiment became quite famous for a while. I thought the experiment pretty trivial and inconclusive, and I was astonished by the amount of publicity it received merely because it told everyone what they wanted to hear. I made a few enemies by pointing out how badly the exercise had been conducted–immense pressure on the kids in the lab, the numbers far too small to be generalisable, and so forth. Our lab became, for a while, “the place” in Britain to test spoon-benders. On the other hand, I was quite pleased with a couple of simple innovations: before each run we coated the bowls of the spoons in lamp-black from a candle to detect if a stray thumb had used illegitimate force. We also kept a flickering candle always in frame so that if anything interesting did happen no one could claim we had edited the film. (The theory was that while it would be easy to reset a clock in a film–and most experimenters put clocks in their films–it would be impossible to “reset” something uncontrollable like a candle flame.)

We never found any convincing evidence of paranormal phenomena but we did discover a lot about human psychology, as well as the sociology of science. As a side note I have to mention that the most untrustworthy people I met during the course of that study were the stage magicians who made themselves the allies of orthodoxy; they were always ready to bend the truth for the sake of science. We never found, however, any stage magician willing to try to break our laboratory protocol. For example, James Randi would not do it, though he visited our lab several times.

After that I became interested in expert systems. I could not believe the early hype on this subject, because I was certain that human knowledge could not be encapsulated in a set of rules. I eventually built an expert system for telling people how to grow experimental semi-conductor crystals, having been apprenticed in the art by our physics lab technician. I used this experience to explore the limits of artificial intelligence. My work on artificial intelligence, on which I’ve written a couple of books, is now winding down.

In the spring of 1993 I was a visiting professor at UC San Diego. Out of curiosity and a sense of nostalgia I decided to drive up to UC Irvine to speak to Joe Weber. Weber talked to me for most of the day about his new theories and findings. I was amazed that he was still going strong nearly 20 years after his claims had been widely dismissed, and I was intrigued to discover that he had a small group of supporters. I managed to get a one-year grant to study “The Life After Death of Scientific Ideas: Gravity Waves and Networks.” For those who wonder why my work to date on gravitational waves puts such great emphasis on the early findings and controversies, the answer is that both my first project grants were concerned with Weber’s claims.

While doing the “Life After Death” project I became caught up with the cryogenic bars and the interferometers. Consequently I applied for five-years of funding to study “Physics in Transition.” The search for the theoretically predicted fluxes is where my work has been going for the last two or three years and where it will head increasingly. The next grant, if I get it, will be called “The Foundations of a New Astronomy,” or something like that. Because of the time it takes to write a big paper or a book, refine it, check it out with respondents, submit it, re-write it, and so forth, a sociological project is like the proverbial oil tanker. If room-temperature bars are west, and interferometers north–with cryogenic bars being north-west–then my project started sailing due west and will eventually settle on a new course around 15 degrees west of north. But though I started to put over the helm about three years ago, the change of course is only just beginning to reveal itself in terms of published work.

Some sociologists of science, fewer than most people imagine, have an animus against science. But these are distinct from sociologists of scientific knowledge, such as myself, who feel comfortable with it. I certainly would not have spent the best part of my life hanging around on the fringes of something I didn’t enjoy. Of the sciences I’ve studied, gravitational wave detection is by far the most exciting. Gravitational radiation has become my chosen “career project” and, all being well, the story from first experiments to the establishment of the new astronomy will have coincided with my professional life. If I can do it justice, it will make a unique case study. Incidentally, my children seem to have inherited my dual enthusiasms: one is studying sociology, and one engineering.

Finally, a couple of curious coincidences: in the early ’90s a man called Jay Labinger, a chemist from Caltech, wrote a friendly little critique of the sociology of scientific knowledge, mentioning my work among others. As a result, I met this Labinger. When we started chatting we found out that his father and my uncle–the one I stayed with on my early field trips–had had a minor business relationship in the Los Angeles “rag trade” years before. Labinger and I are now trying to put together a book of debates about science and its social analysis. A few years ago I received a nice but critical letter about my sociological work from a gravitational wave scientist I’d never heard of. I arranged to meet him. Peter Saulson, whose book on “Interferometric Gravitational Wave Detectors” I have now read three times, is writing a contribution for the Labinger volume: small world!

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