Gravitational waves and the slow pace of scientific revolutions

Enlarge / For years, people weren’t sure if gravitational wave were a necessary product of relativity. (credit: Fermilab)

LIGO’s detection of gravitational waves came almost exactly a century after Einstein had formulated his general theory of relativity and an ensuing paper mathematically describing the possibility of gravitational waves. Or at least that’s the story as it was presented to the public (including by yours truly). And in some ways, it’s even true.

But the reality of how relativity progressed to the point where people accepted that gravitational waves are likely to exist and could possibly be detected is considerably more complicated than the simple narrative described above. In this week’s Nature Astronomy, a group of science historians lays out the full details of how we got from the dawn of relativity to the building of LIGO. And, in the process, the historians show that ideas about scientific revolutions bringing about a sudden, radical shift may sometimes miss the point.

Has your paradigm shifted?

The popular conception of scientific revolutions (to the extent that it exists) was shaped by Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn described a process where data gradually pushes an existing theory into crisis, allowing nearly everyone to see it doesn’t work. After a period of crisis, a revolution takes place and a new theory emerges. The theory’s ability to solve all the problems that precipitated the crisis quickly draws support, and a new period of theory-driven—in Kuhn’s language, “paradigm-driven”—science begins.

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Gravitational waves and the slow pace of scientific revolutions