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Deerfield Academy Meets LIGO

What would it be like to “hear” the universe? The detection of gravitational waves by Project LIGO provides the answer.

In February of 2016, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) used a series of lasers to detect microscopic fluctuations in space. The detection provided scientists a whole new way to view the universe: rather than receiving radiation (light), LIGO detects physical vibrations in space. Recently, LIGO scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory behind and detection of gravitational waves. (See our article about this in Issue 2!)

Focal Point was lucky enough to get the chance to speak with Amber Strunk, the outreach coordinator for LIGO Hanford in Washington, who provided some excellent insight on science in our current social climate. She said, of a broad-based survey, “A very low number of people said they know a scientist.” She explained that this is troubling because it implies that most people don’t notice the scientists around them. She also noted that “when you say you’re a scientist, the reaction is ‘I was bored by that class in high school!’ or ‘oh, you must be really smart.’ We have to change this.” She stressed that we, as a society, desperately need to dismantle the stereotype of scientists being separate from the layperson. Scientists are, after all, people like everyone else. Creating an understanding of and trust in science is key to not only scientific, but also societal progress.

According to Strunk, this can only be achieved through outreach, which involves a combined effort of disavowing falsehoods, promoting facts, and specifically, relaying why the facts are important. Scientists in general need to become better at communicating, as speaking to the public is “different from speaking at a conference.” For instance, a group of non-scientists isn’t going to listen to a bunch of technobabble, especially if it is boringly presented and/or incomprehensible to them. Focal Point is another step toward bridging this communication barrier on campus (and would love feedback on how to better accomplish this goal!)

“We should always be learning, [and] always changing our minds based on evidence.”

Amber Strunk

Ms. Strunk kindly offered to host a video tour of the LIGO facilities and have a short panel with several LIGO scientists. This event will be scheduled for sometime this month.

Published in Deerfield Academy's science journalism magazine, Focal Point.



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