What It's Like to Be Right About the Big Bang: Genesis of a Viral Video

What's it like to learn that your decades' worth of work have paid off? Now we know.
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Imagine that you have spent 30 years of your career working on a single project, dedicated to a single idea. Imagine that there have been doubters along the way. Imagine that you, yourself, have occasionally been unsure about whether it's all worth it.

Imagine what it would feel like to find out that it is.

Well, now we know what that's like—or, at least, we have a good idea. Yesterday, as part of the big announcement that the Big Bang's "smoking gun" has been found, Stanford posted a video to YouTube. The brief production features the physicist Chao-Lin Kuo paying a visit to the home of his colleague, the fellow physicist Andrei Linde, to tell him that all his work had paid off: New evidence supports the cosmic inflation theory that Linde has been championing for decades. The theories he has honed and advocated are likely correct. He has, to be scientific about it, hit the jackpot. 

The video is remarkable not just for its content—the hugs! the wine! the shock turning into joy turning into relief!—but also for what it tries to do: to use the capabilities of the Internet to add a human dimension to the typical opacity of cosmological science. It was successful, too: In a single day, the video got more than half a million views—an impressive reach, when you consider that the production's subject is gravitational waves

To learn more about how the video came about, I spoke with Bjorn Carey, Stanford's science information officer and the man who first thought of bringing a Publishers Clearing House-style approach to scientific discovery. The conversation below is lightly edited and condensed. 

Let's start at the beginning: How did you first get the idea for the video? 

A couple weeks ago, I got this kind of mysterious email from Chao-Lin saying we had some big news to talk about, but he needed to meet me in person to talk about it. So we meet over  coffee. He swears me to secrecy, and just tells me everything.

The first thing I asked was, "Have you told Andrei? Does Andrei know?" I'd been working with Andrei for a while, and I knew that he'd be very excited to hear this. Chao-Lin said no: I was actually the second person he'd told at Stanford, I believe. The only other person he'd told at that point, I think, was his tenure advisor—because he's up for tenure, and he was supposed to have a meeting about that. He said, "Could we hold this off until after March 17? There's something that's going to help you make your decision, I think." So he had to kind of spill the beans at that point. 

So Chao-Lin hadn't told Andrei, but needed to tell him soon, because Andrei was about to leave on vacation for the Caribbean. They'd settled on March 17 as the day for the public announcement of the findings, and Andrei was planning to be gone until the 16th. "So unless we're going to make him change his plane ticket," Chao-Lin said, "I'm going to need to tell him soon." 

How did you decide that a home visit was the way to deliver the news?

We decided we couldn't do it at the office, because if anyone in the physics department saw Chao-Lin and Andrei talking together and giving each other high fives, they would know what was up. And this was still a very top-secret thing at the time; we wanted to avoid word getting out at all costs. So we decided to do it at their house.

And I said, "Let me come along! I don't fully understand the science here, but I'm definitely going to understand the emotions of that moment." And I know Andrei, and he's a great guy, and I know he's going to have a great response. And his wife Renata is a physics  professor here, as well, and this has been their life for 30 years. Andrei's always kind of on the short list for winning a Nobel Prize, but it's always like, "No, we've got to wait a few more years until there's a discovery." 

And so we just hatched a plan. Chao-Lin already had in mind to present him with champagne, but I convinced him to let me and Kurt Hickman, our videographer, come along. We had to find the exact moment when Andrei would be at home—he and Renata were still packing for their Caribbean trip (they left less than 24 hours after we filmed them). And they had no idea we were coming. But I think they put it together pretty quickly once they saw us there—it was kind of like Publisher's Clearing House. 

It was a really fun thing. We left a lot out of the video—it was a very inside-baseball conversation once the three of them got going—a lot of numbers flying back and forth, and this graph and that graph, and talking about different physicists that they needed to work with, and next steps, and everything. We ended up stripping that, though, and just including the stuff that would resonate the most. 

How standard are videos like these? Do you have a full production team? 

We have a small team, and we produce news videos for a lot of the stories that we do. But this was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Maybe you top it with a flying car or something like that, but we don't normally get to just tag along and be there when someone tells a world-renowned physicist that the theories he's been sitting on for 30 years are most likely right. 

I knew it was going to be moving going in, but I just had no idea. I think people always think of physicists and scientists in general as people list sitting behind a calculator or computer or whatever, crunching numbers. But they're so much more than that. And I think this video does a pretty good job of showing that other side of them. But it's not normal. I don't know how to top this. 

One of my favorite moments of the video is Renata's first reaction to the news. You could just see all of that story written on her face as she reacted to the news—all those 30 years, in one expression. 

Yes! When we got inside, Andrei just kind of fell into his chair, and was processing everything. His hands were shaking too much to open the bottle of champagne. But she was just clicking, and getting glasses down, talking to everybody, making everybody comfortable. She was just super-excited. And it was a really touching moment between the two of them, too. 

Were there any re-takes that you did? Does this video, in other words, have a blooper reel? 

We didn't do any re-takes. The goal was for it to be a really natural thing. We did ask him to tell us what he was feeling and what the research means. But what you see in the video is just very off-the-cuff and raw. Part of it was, we went there not even knowing if we'd be able to use or keep anything that we did. It was just as likely that he would have been emotional in a way that he didn't want us to share, or that his wife didn't. So we went into it with no guarantee—we knew we'd be able to shoot, but didn't know if we'd be able use it. So we're thankful that they agreed to let us do that. 

I'm not surprised they did, though. So many people associate science, and especially cosmological science, with detachment—it's important and impressive and also totally incomprehensible. The video emphasizes how human cosmology is, at its core: People are investing their careers in that work. 

Not just their careers, but their lives—they've built their lives around this work. Andrei's been around the world for the past couple decades talking about this theory. It's always looked pretty solid on paper, but people can detract all they want until they actually see some evidence. So it was joy and relief—and they were both so humble about it. 

How do you think about a video like this in the context of your role in scientific communication? 

Once the idea started running through my head, I just thought: "This is going to be fun." I have a science background, and I've worked in science journalism, and my goal has always been just to make science fun and accessible, and to show this kind of human side to things. The people who are doing science are just so in love with what they do, and the work that they do will transform other people's lives. And that often gets lost, I think, in the public reporting. 

And you can do some of that better in video than you can in print, I think. In a video, you can hear their voice, where they break, where they pause. It's a really nice way to ingest science, and research in particular—especially for things that aren't super-accessible. Like cosmology. Even if you don't understand inflation, you'll understand the emotion of that moment. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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