Nobel laureate tells science like it is

Science is a group effort, and this year's Nobel Prize in Physics could have been shared with thousands.

Dr. Rainer Weiss debunks the myth of the lone scientist

Dr. Rainer Weiss shares the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the detection of gravitational waves (M. Scott Brauer)

Every year it is an exquisite pleasure to interview a winner of the Nobel Prizes in science, and this year was no exception as we spoke with Dr. Rainer Weiss, who shared the physics prize with Dr. Kip Thorne and Dr. Barry Barish for the discovery of gravitational waves. But his most powerful message was in how modern science is a huge team effort and that eureka moments are rare.

Right from the beginning, Weiss was quick to point out that the "three guys" who won the prize are only a small part of a team of thousands of other scientists from different countries who worked over four decades to design, build and operate LIGO, that captured the elusive waves in 2015, almost exactly 100 years after Einstein predicted them.

When asked about the moment when the first waves were actually detected, he replied that there was no "moment" — that, in fact, no one, including him, believed that the signal, which had come from two huge black holes smashing into each other 1.3 billion light-years away, was actually real. There were so many other things it could have been, from noise in the equipment to noise in the environment or even the work of a clever hacker.

It took a few weeks to meticulously eliminate all possibilities — in other words, trying their best to prove what they found was NOT a gravitational wave — before everyone on the team finally agreed they had, in fact, captured actual ripples in space-time. Then they were ready to announce it to the public at a news conference.

This illustration shows the merger of two black holes and the gravitational waves that ripple outward as the black holes spiral toward each other. In reality, the area near the black holes would appear highly warped, and the gravitational waves would be difficult to see directly. (T. Pyle/LIGO)

This is very different from the way scientific discoveries are portrayed in movies, where lone mad scientists like Doc Brown in Back to the Future invents a time machine entirely on his own in a garage workshop. Throughout the movie, moments of insight strike him and he shouts "Great Scott!"

This stems from the mythical story of the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes, who figured out how to calculate the proportion of gold and silver in a wreath designed for the king by immersing it in water. The story goes, he figured this out while he was taking a bath, then ran out into the street naked yelling "Eureka!" which means "I have found it!"

That likely did not happen, but the Archimedes principle, which allows you to calculate the density of an object, is still taught in schools today.

When a big scientific discovery is announced in a highly publicized news conference, the institutions want to get as much media attention as possible. A date for the announcement is set, an embargo placed on the story, and news releases may include headlines such as "Major breakthrough in science" or "Scientists solve mystery of the universe." 

This makes it look like everything happened at once when, in fact, the breakthrough is actually the result of a long progression of small steps taking place over years. There were many failed experiments, debates among colleagues, refinements, more experiments, verifications, peer review, publications and, perhaps once in awhile, a big fundamental question, such as the nature of gravitational waves, is answered.

A scientist is silhouetted against a visualization of gravitational waves during a news conference by the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) at the Leibniz University in Hanover, Germany, on February 11, 2016. (Julian Stratenschulte/EPA)

And even then, another group may come along years later and find flaws or missing information, then modify and improve those results. The scientific method has always been an accumulation of knowledge, building on itself, constantly striving to find the ultimate truth about the workings of the universe. The lone genius making a breakthrough with a eureka moment is not the way it normally happens.

Years ago, while I was shooting a story for television in a scientific laboratory that had just announced a big discovery, the scientist said to me, "We've been working here for years, and you come here in one day to capture all the excitement, then leave, and we are still here facing years of more work. Meanwhile you have all the fun by moving on to the next exciting discovery."

He was right. I do have a lot of fun tracking exciting new insights in the world of science, sometimes making it look like an individual is behind all the work. But I have also had the privilege of meeting many other hard-working scientists behind the scene who get little or no attention for their achievements.

Science is a community. Let's celebrate all of them.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.