Gravitational wave observation GW150914 with black hole merger simulation

I couldn’t find anyone that had combined the gravitational wave chirp observed by LIGO with the simulated visualisation of the putative black hole merger by SXS, so I decided to give it a try myself. Consider it to be illustrative, rather than rigorous.

In the first run-through, the LIGO gravitational wave observation from 2015 Sept 14 (audio chirp) is speed and pitch adjusted to match the SXS visualisation. Mergers 2-5 adjust the SXS simulation to match the chirp, alternating between native and pitch-adjusted frequency to cater to human hearing.

LIGO observation:
Abbott, B. P. et al. Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger. Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 61102 (2016). https://journals.aps.org/prl/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevLett.116.061102

Visualisation modified from Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) Project http://www.black-holes.org
Source material used under CC-NC-BY licence (creativecommons.org). Feel free to reuse and remix, but retain attributions.

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We mustn’t liken a black hole to a baked good

We also mustn’t use the royal we

A prevalent mindset in science journalism is that in order to make a subject accessible, it first must be dumbed-down. I suggest we all make efforts to recognise the difference between a simplification and a replacement with simple ideas. A simplification is a description that isn’t comprehensive, but is still true. Replacing a complex idea with simple one, on the other hand, often boils down to telling a loosely related story for the sake of entertainment.

Abstraction is essential to scientific inquiry, and often analogy for the sake of one’s own understanding or that of an audience can be a tricky thing to grapple with. All too often when scientists and science writers try to convey especially tricky ideas they end up deviating from their premises and consequently end up communicating something almost wholly different than what they intend to describe.

Over the last few weeks I pointed out a few examples of “exceptional” analogy in science writing. Attentive readers may have noticed they were all sort of… not good. They all fall a bit flat for purposes of communicating the science behind them.. A tough task to be sure, popularisers of science have to balance accuracy against confusing their audience with esoteric nonsense. Wasn’t it Isaac Asimov that said any sufficiently specialised language is indistinguishable from rampant babble? Hopefully you enjoyed the cartoons.

Every single time

This one gets used quite often, and typically will form the pinnacle of a long line of increasingly wayward analogies. Space is mind-bogglingly big (much larger than the distance to the chemist’s, thanks D.A.) and also quite weird.

Don't actually stick your hand in the LHC

I have heard this one from some very clever people. Presumably particle physicists all switched to the rock-star analogy after they grew tired of watching listeners eyes glaze over when they delve into maths.

Mitochondria-The engines of life

Internal combustion in the cell

This one might be the closest to the mark. The engine/mitochondria analogy gets the point across that metabolism involves trade-offs, but does very little to convey a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms.