Thursday, February 2, 2012

Science Summaries on ligo.org - FEEDBACK WELCOME!

A new initiative the LIGO Science Collaboration (LSC) is undertaking is composing science summaries of all of our newly published papers so that everyone can keep themselves up to date on what new science LIGO and her sister observatories produce.  Today's post gives you a look into my experience writing one of these summaries.

One unfortunate thing about science is that almost all publications are written for an audience of other experts in the field.  This allows us to communicate to one another in efficient terminology that is all but alien to non-experts.  Some research is so specialized that it can be difficult for experts in a related sub-specialty to understand papers without careful study.  However, most physical science research is funded through government agencies - that means with your tax payer dollars.  LIGO is funded by the National Science Foundation (that's right kids, the same people who pay Elmo pay me!).  So, for the same reasons that I write this blog (to let everyone see inside of LIGO) the LSC is publishing these science summaries of recent publications.

There have been several already published (click on "science" and then on "science summaries"), but I wanted to talk about my experience writing one on the a paper titled "Implementation and testing of the first prompt search for gravitational wave transients with electromagnetic counterparts".  Of course, the title for the summary is a bit more succinct, "Optical, X-ray, and Radio Telescopes Seek Explosive Sources of Gravitational Waves".  This is that paper that outlines the development of the procedures and software needed to alert optical telescopes when we think LIGO may have seen a gravitational wave (I wrote about working on this in a previous blog post).

Before I started writing this summary, I re-read the paper.  Wow.  This paper wasn't too difficult to read because of jargon, but there were so many details that I thought were important (... of course I did!).  So I sat back and asked myself how I would explain this to my mother, who is a real estate appraiser and not an expert on what I do (even though she always smiles and nods when I ramble on about work).  What are the most important points I would want her to know?  The first is that we were successful in creating a system that would give us a good chance of imaging the source of a gravitational wave if we were to have a real detection.  The other was that we made partnerships with scientists who operate telescopes around the world (and they are just as excited to work with us as we were with them - but we don't talk about that in the paper).  After I determined these 2 major points, I made sure to detail the who, what, when, where, why, and how as well.  Then my draft went to the rest of the group who did the work described in this paper for their opinions.

I got many helpful comments from the project group.  There are so many small changes I was advised to make so that my prose would be better understood (I am sure my regular readers can tell me many ways that, if I just changed the way I said this or that, my blog would be improved).  Once everyone was comfortable with the summary draft, it then went to the Education and Public Outreach (EPO) group in the collaboration for review.  This is where all of us who are interested in sharing LIGO's work with the public get together to plan events, etc.  The comments I got from this group had me doing some major reworking of the summary.  You see, I answered most of the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions in a few very long sentences right at the beginning.  Instead of this, it was suggested that I give a more introductory paragraph that established background instead of a flood of facts.  After these major revisions, my summary wasn't any longer and still contained all of the same information but in a much more digestible manner.

Now that the summary has been published, I am wondering what your thoughts are on it.  What could I have said better?  I've learned so much from my colleagues in writing this, but in the end, they are still experts that are just as biased as I am towards jargon.  I would love to learn from you!  Please feel free to leave comments below!

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