Friday, April 27, 2012

On Outreach...

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently visited Ole Miss to give a colloquium on outreach for their physics department.  Later that night, I also gave a talk at a local bakery on multi-messenger astronomy (public events like this are called "Science Cafes").  The colloquium on outreach was interesting to do since it made me organize my thoughts from my experiences here at LIGO (and this blog was featured) and I wanted to share my thoughts on engaging students and discussing religious issues in general.

The beginning of my colloquium at Ole Miss.


I specialize in being the scientist that people talk to when they visit LIGO.  That includes taking visitors on a tour of the control room (where all the science happens).  I think everything I talk about is immensely interesting, but some of my visitors (especially the younger ones) will disagree.  So, how can I make this interesting for them?  Usually, anything that is gross (yet age appropriate) will get their attention.

One of the features of LIGO I like to point out is our outstanding vacuum system.  LIGO has 300,000 cubic feet of volume in a vacuum that is 8x better than the vacuum of space the space station is currently orbiting in (that is a trillionth of the atmospheric pressure you are sitting in now).  For some visitors, this is impressive; for others, not so much.  Then I talk about how your blood would boil if you went into our vacuum without a spacesuit.  And I put a little dramatic emphasis on the "boil" part.  Now I've got their attention!

Why would our blood boil if we were inside LIGO's vacuum?

The reason that blood would boil in our vacuum isn't because of temperature.  Rather, it is because our blood stores oxygen and carbon dioxide in solution.  How much it can store is dependent on the pressure that surrounds our body.  Going from atmospheric pressure to 1/1,000,000,000,000th that pressure would allow the oxygen and carbon dioxide to be released from solution in the form of bubble.  Hence, it "boils".  To give an example that most of us encounter in our daily lives, this "boiling" is similar to what happens when you open a 2 liter bottle of soda (or pop, or Coke depending on where you live) - you release the pressure in the bottle and the bubbles come out of the drink.  Another example that many people have heard of is deep sea divers suffering from the bends when they surface too quickly.


In one of my first blog posts, I stated that I don't want to argue religious issues here.  I want to make clear that I am not making any statements for or against a view, I simply want to talk about DISCUSSING religious issues when the come up.

Many people who visit LIGO have strongly held religious convictions.  Fortunately, there is very little controversy over LIGO science and religion.  The one concept that can have religious implications if the Big Bang.  This theory (and I mean a scientific theory that is supported by evidence, not a hunch) states that the Universe was once contained in a very dense, very small ball and time effectively started in a large explosion.  This is at odds with many types of creationism.  While this can yield lively debate, that is not something I am interested in doing with visitors; my goal is to talk about science and what LIGO can reveal about our Universe.

My goal when faced with situations like this is to treat everyone with respect no matter what their beliefs are.  Just like it is unlikely for them to convert me to their worldview (assuming it is different from mine), I know it is unlikely for me to change theirs.  So I define what kinds of questions science can and cannot answer: science only ever asks "How?" not "Why?".  For the "Why?" you need to turn to philosophy and religion.  With respect to the Big Bang and creationism, I point out that evidence exists to support the Big Bang in the Cosmic Microwave Background.  But, even if this is not the relic light from the Big Bang, something created it and whatever it was may have also created gravitational waves.  So, while one of our documentaries claims that we are seeking the gravitational waves from the Big Bang (and many other sources), we are really seeking the gravitational waves from whatever created the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Some have accused me of skirting the subject in the way I handle religious issues and they are mostly right.  I try to respect everyone and re-frame the contentious issue in a way that doesn't conflict with religious beliefs and is still true to the science.  But I think it is also important to make the distinction in what science can and cannot do.  Some people believe that science tries to disprove God but the truth is it can't.  Science also can never prove God.