How I Met a LIGO Scientist

Today’s post is sort of a personal story. Back in November, I attended a rather ritzy fundraising gala. A dear friend of mine was being honored with an award at this gala.

It just so happens that while I was at this event, I met Dr. Beverly Berger. That’s right. The Beverly Berger. The retired program director for gravitational physics at the U.S. National Science Foundation, although right now she’s better known for her association with LIGO. (If you haven’t heard of LIGO, I suggest you click here or here or here or here. They’ve been in the news a lot lately.)

Turns out Dr. Berger is related to my friend by marriage. She was introduced to me only as “a physicist” (it was much later in the evening that I learned of her connection to LIGO). I was introduced to her as a science fiction writer.

Here’s the funny part of the story: someone commented that, as a scientist and a science fiction writer, we should have plenty to talk about. Dr. Berger responded with a wry smile, saying, “Oh, I’m not so sure about that.”

I smiled too. Of course, I knew exactly what she meant. Despite the fact that the word “science” is in “science fiction,” there seems to be an odd disconnect between science fiction and real life science. To a physicist of Dr. Berger’s caliber, any discussion of laser guns, hyperspace, or teleportation must seem quaint at best and profoundly silly at worst.

In my own writing, I do at least try to get the science right. Well, my main character is still a time traveler, and the aliens from Roswell are still among her principle antagonists. But aside from that stuff, I try to get the science right.

I can only hope that, in the course of our conversation, Dr. Berger recognized that I do make an effort. She seemed somewhat interested in my Sciency Words series, so that’s a plus.

One final note: that evening, back in November, I asked Dr. Berger how soon LIGO might be able to detect gravitational waves. She gave me a rather non-committal answer: “Maybe soon.” I thought nothing of that at the time, other than a respect for her confidence in the LIGO project.  Of course, I now know that LIGO had already detected these waves. It had picked up the signal back in September, but the data was still being reviewed and could not be revealed to the public just yet.

That Beverly Berger… she is a cagey one!

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