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.

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. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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