Gravity's Shadow: The Search for Gravitational Waves

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University of Chicago Press, Aug 15, 2010 - Science - 864 pages
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.

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Shortly before his death in 2000, the late Joseph Weber of gravity wave fame gave a talk to a group of satellite engineers at the former Comsat Laboratories in Clarksburg, MD about the necessity of building a neutrino modulator in order to obsolete satellite telecommunications. Neutrinos can burrow through a chord or all the way through the Earth without very much interaction. Weber claimed to have discovered a means of detecting neutrinos easily using a large crystal of pure silicon mounted inside of a NMR device. If a single neutrino would strike an atom in part of the silicon lattice, it would be detectable as a vibration throughout the lattice (so the effect was to make the target atom larger).
When I asked a neutrino physicist, Jack Ullman about Weber's claim, he said that he had heard about it, that the idea wasn't original, and like Weber's gravity waves, no one had yet succeeded in reproducing his claimed result.
Perhaps it was because Weber began a physics career as a switch from electrical engineering, or perhaps he really didn't understand that there was a glitch in his experimental setup with the Weber bars as researchers from Princeton claimed.
The fact remains that the NSF shuns most gravity wave reports from LIGO, that a gravity wave has never been detected, and that the specifications for their optics, particularly the mirrors, are outrageous and ludicrous, and most of the physics community knows it. If someone designed this device to redo the Michaelson Morley or the Kennedy-Thorndike experiments, it was as big a waste of the $300 billion research money as the Weber bars it replaced.
The only functional gravity wave detector currently in operation are the ocean tides of the planet Earth.

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User Review  - fpagan - LibraryThing

Just about everything (870 pages' worth) you'd want to know about the *sociology* of this aspect of physics. Read full review


Two Kinds of SpaceTime
A La Recherche Des Ondes Perdues
Two New Technologies
Bar Wars
The Interferometers and the InterferometeersFrom Small Science to Big Science
Becoming a New Science
Science Scientists and Sociology
MarchApril 2004
What Is Small?
Gravitational Waves Gravitational Radiation and Gravity Waves A Note on Terminology
Roger Babsons Essay GravityOur Enemy Number One
Colonial Cringe
The Method


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About the author (2010)

Harry Collins is Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at Cardiff University, where he directs the Center for the Study of Knowledge, Expertise, and Science. With Jay Labinger, he is coeditor of The One Culture? A Conversation about Science, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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