Daniel Kennefick (Philosophy) - University of Arkansas
Title: The Wagers of Science: The Numerical Relativity binary black hole breakthrough and its implications
Abstract: In the late 1990s the NSF sponsored Binary Black Hole Grand Challenge Alliance tackled the problem of solving the Einstein equations numerically via a Big Science approach. Individual research groups were mobilized into a large, physically remote, collaboration to try to kickstart progress on this difficult problem. Although solutions of binary black hole mergers via computational methods was expected to play a critical role in analyzing signals in then-planned gravitational wave detectors like LIGO and VIRGO no simulation had yet been able to advance such a binary through even one simulated orbit. Although this collaborative period did produce codes which are still in use today, it did not result in a breakthrough in the sense that codes in the early 2000s still crashed before the completion of an orbit. A leading figure in the relativity community, Kip Thorne had even publicly challenged the numerical relativists to a wager that they would not have gravitational wave templates ready by the time LIGO had actually recorded a signal from a binary black hole merger in its detector output. In 2005 there was a sudden breakthrough which ultimately put the field in position to win their bet. But it is noteworthy that the first paper which announced the successful evolution of simulation through more than one complete orbit was a single-authored publication (by Frans Pretorius). What has the recent history of numerical relativity got to tell us about big science, remote collaboration and computational physics? Can scientific success be socially engineered by funders and institutions or is the process fundamentally serendipitous?