So far, the greatest achievement of physics in this century is the detection of gravitational waves. These are ripples in the fabric of spacetime created in titanic explosions millions to billions of light years away, such as the merger of black holes or the collision of neutron stars. The arrays of massive equipment that were used to detect the waves as well as improved versions under construction, will allow us to look at the universe in a new way and usher in an exciting era of space exploration. The detection of these waves represents the culmination of decades of arguments, counterarguments, mistakes, dead ends, and failed attempts at conceptualizing and detecting the waves by some of the greatest minds to have walked the planet. Chief among them was Albert Einstein.
And Einstein’s story, as most scientific stories are, is complicated. While others had considered and argued for gravitational waves, it was Einstein who formally laid the mathematical foundation for the existence of these waves with his 1916 article on General Relativity. However, the math was fiendishly complex and dependent on systems or coordinates that had to be chosen carefully. The conclusion that the waves existed was not straightforward, and was dependent on how you approached the calculations. Einstein himself was skeptical about the reality of the waves, and made it clear in letters sent to colleagues. Einstein and the scientist Nathan Rosen revisited the existence of gravitational waves again in 1936. After doing the elaborate math, they came up with an explanation of why the waves could not exist, and they submitted their research for publication in a leading physics journal, The Physical Review. The journal sent the article to an anonymous reviewer who found a mistake in Einstein’s calculations, and the article was not accepted. This greatly annoyed Einstein, as he had not authorized the journal to show his work to an independent reviewer, and he submitted the article to another journal which accepted it for publication.
On the meantime, the independent reviewer, the physicist Howard Robertson, managed to contact Einstein. By then Einstein had taken another look at his article and figured out there was something wrong with it. Without telling him that he was the reviewer, Robertson suggested to Einstein the right approach to perform the calculations. So Einstein redid the calculations and came to the opposite conclusion. Gravitational waves existed after all! He contacted the journal to prevent the publication of the article with the old conclusion, he rewrote the article, and finally published it with the new conclusion in 1937.
However, until his death in 1955 Einstein remained ambivalent about the reality of these waves, and whether they could even be detected if they indeed were real. His coauthor in the 1937 article, Nathan Rosen, was also skeptical regarding whether gravitational waves were more than a mathematical construct, and he published articles arguing against them using controversial mathematical procedures. In the late 1950s, several scientists built upon Einstein’s work and developed the mathematical approaches that firmly established the theoretical rationale for the existence of gravitational waves within the framework of Einstein’s theory of relativity. It would be 60 years after Einstein’s death before gravitational waves were finally detected.
The story behind gravitational waves is a success story of science and perseverance by generations of scientists with Einstein playing a central role. However, I wondered what would have happened if the research into gravitational waves had become politicized in the age of social media after, for example, a heavy-weight political personality publicly balked at the price tag of proposed gravitational wave detectors and labelled the science “fake science”. I imagine some of the resulting messages in social media may have looked something like this:
As it turns out the “genius” published in favor of #gravitationalwaves but in private argued against them! #Einsteinhypocrite
He was honestly for them, then honestly against them, and then honestly for them again? Yeah, right! #Einsteinflipflop
Why did a leading physics journal reject Einstein’s article against gravitational waves, and then a reviewer for the same journal secretly influenced Einstein to change his calculations and his conclusions? #ThePhysicalReviewgate #gravitationalwavescandal
#Einsteinfraud sold out to the scientific establishment that wants to milk the taxpayers for their hard-earned money to finance fake projects! #gravitationalwavehoax
Einstein and Rosen didn’t think gravitational waves would ever be detected, but now physicists are asking for billions to do just that. #fakescience
Any money for the #gravitationalwavescam is money that is not used to save lives and help ordinary Americans. Stop feeding the bureaucratic beast with #fakeprojects! Stop killing American Citizens!
You get the idea?
Now imagine doing science under this environment. If you publish anything “for” or “against” gravitational waves and are vocal about it, thousands of people may roast you in social media. Your past activities and statements will be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb to find something that can be used against you. Any mistake you may have made, any publication you may have retracted, any change of opinion you may have had, may be incorporated into memes containing misleading or false statements about you that may go viral all over the planet. Someone may figure out your e-mail and phone numbers and make them available online. Dozens of people may contact you leaving insulting or threatening messages. Depending on your visibility, you may have to get or be assigned a bodyguard. Would gravitational waves ever have been detected if gravitational wave research had been politicized in this fashion?
The above scenario illustrates how you can take hold of the often complex and messy reality of human beings doing science (or any other activity for that matter) and twist it to argue in favor of nefarious purposes smearing the reputation of those involved and creating stress and anxiety for many people who don’t need it. Even though the specific scenario I presented concerning gravitational waves is fictitious, similar things are currently happening in the fields of climate change, vaccine science, and the research into the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and other drugs against COVID-19.
Do not politicize the science!
The photograph of Albert Einstein by Orren Jack Turner obtained from the Library of Congress, and an artist’s rendition of gravitational waves from NASA, are both in the public domain and were merged and modified.