Well, it looks like Einstein was right.
If you’re interested in the technical details, have a look at some of these links
Christopher Berry’s blog. Christopher Berry is an LSC member and research fellow at the University of Birmingham, and focuses on what gravitational waves can tell us about compact objects.
Matt Pitkin’s Cosmic Zoo. Matt Pitkin is a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, and works primarily on gravitational wave data analysis in a wide range of ways.
Andrew Williamson’s Cosmoblogy. Andrew Williamson is finishing up his Ph.D at Cardiff University. He is mostly involved in gravitational wave data analysis, and was also a LIGO Fellow, just like me.
I guess that I should stay off the bat that anything I say here, or anywhere in the blog, is just my own opinion. I don’t claim to represent LIGO in any way. And this post isn’t going to be technical. I will do a technical post in time, so stay tuned.
Here we go!
News that something interesting had happened at LIGO started filtering the the IGR (Institute for Gravitational Research) group at Glasgow on the afternoon of the 14th September 2015. It started out with the more observant email watchers hurriedly shuffling along corridors, diving into an office and closing the door behind them. What they were about to say was both secret to those not within the LSC, and so exciting to those within.
“Have you seen?” or “Did so-and-so tell you yet?” – but it invariably ended with
“There’s been strong signals in the detector! And they think it’s real”
And this was a really, really big deal. Let me tell you why. Advanced LIGO began construction in 2010. Initial LIGO began construction in 1997. Before LIGO, there were Bar Detectors, and they date back as far as the late 1960s. Before then,gravitational waves were only a theoretical phenomenon, not able to feasibly be tested. First theorised in 1916 by Albert Einstein himself, they have remained as one elusive measurement of general relativity. This being the case, when there were whispers of a possible detection, people were very excited indeed.
Now some of us thought that this might just disappear, and for a number of reasons, which I can go into later, but needless to say it didn’t.
Of course, only a few people could be involved with the verification process, and I wasn’t one of them. So all that was going on was on the edge of my radar, but straight ahead was my own work. For a while at a time I would hear nothing about the event, then some information would drip through.
In early November, a small representation of Glasgow’s IGR attended a local astronomy conference, where a small presentation on the future of gravitational wave astronomy was given. It was kinda hard to stay straight-faced. But one little leak and the jig was up.
By late November of 2015, the event was solidly in the territory of “This is happening”. The rumours from [REDACTED] had subsided, and the collaboration ploughed on. Eventually, in late November, the results were shared on an LSC-wide level. In one telecon, we would share information about the source of the event – a binary black hole merger event of 2 medium sized black holes, each a few tens the size the mass of our sun; in another, we would discuss how the detectors were performing at the time of the event, and how they’ve been since. Also shared was the statistical significance of this event. When you see the plots, it’s really striking how loud this event was compared to the noise that we would expect.
Of course, at the end of November was the centenary of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, of which this discovery is a consequence. A bit fuss was made worldwide, and a few of ius IGRers travelled down to London for a 2 day public event hosted by the Institute of Physics (IOP). We were holding a public outreach stall, focussing on gravitational wave detectors, and their place in physics. It was so hard sitting on this information in front of hundreds of others in the same field. Some of them MUST have known.
Roger Penrose was there as a key speaker. In my undergrad studies in Swansea, I wrote my thesis around the Penrose limit in GR, and its application onto gravitational waves. He would know just how big an announcement this would be. The temptation to tell gets even bigger when people ask bluntly “Have you seen them yet?”. I just wanted to jump up and down yelling “YES! YES! EINSTEIN WAS RIGHT!” — but that would not do. So I composed myself and told them simply the standard scpiel.
“The first observing run of advanced LIGO hasn’t finished yet (only recently finished). It will take some time after the run is complete to check through all the data, but rest assured, all results, even negative ones, will be published in due time”
At about the same time, the detection paper writing committee was named. One fantastic thing about a collaboration of 900+ people is that we can get science like this done. One down side is we almost can’t get anything done. Have you ever tried to decide where to eat with 6 or 7 other people? Isn’t that a nightmare? Imagine nearly a thousand people all trying to write a paper. That would be impossible without some executive decisions, committee thinking, and it has resulted in a really lovely paper, which is a joy to see.
Of course, the paper took time, and there were disagreements. During that period, the LSC-machine chugged away, and excitement mounted.
In January, the paper was all but done, and was shared around the LSC before submitting to the peer reviewers.
And that’s about all the story I have leading up to the moment. But luckily, here I am on site at LHO, with our own little press event!
The press conference starts on Feb 11th at 7.30am here at the Hanford observatory. Knowing that we were about to dawn on a new era of gravitational wave astronomy, I took this picture. It seemed appropriate.
We had to get up at the crack of dawn to be on site before 7. That meant a 5.30 alarm. But the morning flew by, and before I know it, I have coffee and I’m picking at the breakfast spread.
I sit towards the back of the auditorium, where we are live streaming the press conference that was being held in Washington DC (the one everyone thinks whenever I say “Washington”). The excitement was palpable. Not just on site, but seemingly world wide through social media. I guess that I have a selection bias.
You can see the whole press conference here:
At the moment when Dadid Reitze spoke those words, “We have detected gravitational waves”, the room burst into applause. I’m sure everyone who’s ever worked with gravitational wave detection in their lives was smiling from ear to ear at that moment. I know I was. But I mean, I’m new to this. I’m 18 months into my Ph.D. People like Jim Hough, Kip Thorne, and Rai Weiss have been working in the fields for longer than I’ve been alive! The gratification for these people must have been immense!
It was fantastic to see all of these people, David, Gaby (Gonzalez), Rai, and Kip, giants in the field, speaking about the project I’ve been working towards, about the facility that I was sitting in, and about the this achievement, decades in the making, was really great. They spoke eloquently and to the point. They answered all of the streamed Q&A questions well, and then, the stream finished. It was just about the fastest hour and a half in my life.
Then, our press conference began! You can’t stream that one.
From right to left, the picture shows: Mike Landry, Shiela Dwyer, Kiwamu Izumi, Greg Mendell, Jenne Driggers and Fred Raab. They each spoke to a specific aspect of the lab, the detection, the history and the future, and each had a chance to get questioned briefly after their own segment. It was so obvious that the local press couldn’t wait to jump on this lot for questions.
Now, the press were local. They weren’t necessarily all scientists – so some more than others wanted to know that basics of the science. About how the wave form can lead us to conclude that billions of years ago, black holes inspiralled, or about what is mean by the terms “loud” and “noise” in this context. It seems like we are all so close to the subject, so entrenched in the lingo that it might be a barrier to the wider public.
Between each speaker the press would interject with questions for five or ten minutes, and so the whole press conference took much longer than was expected. But I found it to be a really interesting experience. As the panel went across, the speakers went from overview, to detailed, and back to overview. By the end of speakers’ part, there was seemingly little left to ask.
Fred, the director of LHO, spoke for the longest, and spoke on a wide range of subjects, from the time invested into this discovery, to the astrophysics involved with a merger like this. At one point, he made a comment that cracked me up. The context here is this: in the merger, a black hole of 29 solar masses and a black hole of 35 solar masses. The resulting black hole was not 62 solar masses, but 62. The weight of 3 suns had been radiated away. To that effect, Fred added something like ‘The most energy ever released by humanity was from the Tsar Bomba, a soviet hydrogen bomb. It released all the energy contained in a 5lb bag of sugar. They realised it was inefficient because you can only kill people so dead’. I couldn’t contain my laughter.
After that was done, we hung around, and I got a chance to meet people. Since I arrived here, I’d not been given a chance to mingle so much, what with everything being so spread out. So it was really valuable to me. But then, as the announcement was early here, it was all said and done by 11. So back to work. The day passed like any other. Well, it tried to, but there was an air of joy about the lab. And media. The phones were ringing all day, and there was always a reporter on site.
In the evening, Mike had invited us to his house for a celebration. There was another reporter there too. She recorded the toast with her microphone. Oh, and the cake. I guess Mike had a cake made specially for the event. Here it is:
In case you can’t make it out, it’s huge! It has plots of the detection printed onto rice paper, as well as the significance of the event on rice paper, with the words “LIGO” and “We Are Listening” piped on top. And it was deilicious.
Again, the party allowed me to make new contacts with my colleagues. Something that a friend back in Glasgow said resonated with me at that party. She said “Working in the IGR is like being part of a family”. I had always disagreed with her. I would think that I kept the relationship professional, that it was all business, and thought nothing more of it. But here I am, thousands of miles away from my Glasgowgroup, in the house of a member of my new, adoptive family I guess. We were celebrating the same thing, I was sure, and I missed my Glasgow family, but I felt so welcomed into the family at Hanford, it didn’t matter. Of course, I’ll be glad when I get back, but I’m also very glad that I’m here.
For one thing, each grroup has its own personality, its own values, and lets off steam in their own way. Glasgow, for one, likes to network, often on a Friday evening, and often in a pub! It turns out that a fair few members of the team at LHO are musical, which led to, last night, the inception of the Black-hole Binary Bluegrass Band! They played a few tunes last night, in fact, Nutsinee said that she had learned to play the upright bass in a matter of days just for this event!
So after a vew toasts “To the next detection” and “To Hanford always hearing it better” (So, whilst the signal reached the sister observatory, LLO first, and they like to parade that fact, the signal was much more clear at the Hanford observatory), and some bubbly, we were left to our own devices, but with the need to drive home and get to work for Friday morning, Darkhan and I shuffled home before long.
And I guess that’s the day from my view!
I had distributed the link to the live stream of the press conference among friends and family over facebook. Throughout the presentation, and in the following Q&A, I was fielding questions from my nearest and dearest, as well as words of support, and congratulations. Which, of course, I palmed off. I’m part of the team who did this, but I had no real contribution.
But who knows, one day, I might. This is just the first detection. There are other firsts yet to come. The first detection of GWs from a rotating neutron star, or binary neutron star inspirals, or some real astrophysics done on an ensemble of gravitational wave events.
To read about what others think, try looking at some of these blogs from other LVC members and enthusiasts! I will do a more texhnical post in time, and add the link here!