“Gravitational waves: why it’s impossible not to be thrilled by this discovery”, announced the Guardian newspaper after last month’s discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Inferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). You had to admit that it was pretty thrilling. Even President Obama congratulated the LIGO team. Just like the detection of Higgs bosons by physicists in 2012, or the 1998 discovery of the universe’s accelerating expansion, physicists had somehow attracted massive attention to a scientific result that few members of the public can fully understand and that has little (or at least only indirect) practical significance.
It’s easy to justify basic research when the public celebrates a discovery like this as a pinnacle of cultural and intellectual achievement. Maybe this is the source of ecology’s often diagnosed physics envy: we wish our science sold itself this well. So why doesn’t basic ecological research attract LIGO-levels of public interest? What kinds of ecology stories do attract attention? Should the answers to these questions change how we justify our research—or maybe even the kind of research we do?