LVC Day 4

Even though I hadn’t had too much to drink the previous night, the lateness, as well as it being the 3rd or 4th night on the trot made it all the more painful waking up. As I was sitting in bed chatting to Daniel, waiting for Jennie to finish in the shower, I got a call from Joe. Morning calls are usually a fixture, but the schedule had been a little tight this week, so I jumped at the chance to get as much chat in as I could.

Another day, another muffin. I just wanted bacon. Just once. But a muffin and a bucket of coffee later, and I felt only slightly more human.The agenda for the talks today were predominantly data analysis focussed – computing budget, burst search results,  and stochastic search updates. I always think that the stochastic updates are neat – their group, instead of looking for individual events or sources, are more concerned with detecting an ensemble of unresolved results. As such, they have extremely different results to present, from some relatively off-the-wall methods when compared to other search groups.

Alas, the week was starting to take its toll (and yes, I did just use the word “alas”), and after a talk or two, I decided that what I really needed was some peace and quiet. Sitting in the back of the dark room just wasn’t secluded enough. Unfortunately, though,  housekeeping were in the hotel room, so I came back down and felt sorry for myself for the next hour, until the morning break.

The day carried on in much the same, but food at lunch perked me up. Look, I don’t think that muffins and pastries are in any way appropriate for a breakfast. Not even once. The addition of melons and strawberries was no consolation either.

Lunch on Thursday was the LAAC lunch – some of the LAAC guest alumni stuck around to talk to current LIGO students, and this was our chance to rub elbows. I sat on a table with Tobin, an ex-LIGO now Google employee in San Francisco. The food was mexican – but I couldn’t tell you what. I honestly can’t tell the difference between the styles of wrap. The talk at the table was interesting – not just on experiences post-LIGO, but also about what it’s like to work at different institutes, the benefits of working in various working groups, and the like.

After lunch, I was back in the hall for the stochastic talks. Always interesting, and always eye opening. Their aims, to detect the gravitational wave background, is like trying to characterise the murmur of conversation at a bar, but not to resolve any individual words. It strikes as particularly challenging as their search isn’t for a given waveform, or for loud events, but is very dependant on cosmological models. It’s a unique challenge within the LVC, and utterly fascinating.

After the final plenary of the day, we were kicked out so that the hotel staff could set up for the conference dinner. Vinny, Paul, Daniel, myself and a few others decided to head to Caltech to have a nose around. On the way to meet the others at reception, I was stopped by Susan. I recognised her from the dance floor on Tuesday night. She said that she was here with a film crew, and were filming the event for a post-discover era documentary. She told me that she likes to interview people with more energy, and that she was impressed by what she had seen on the dance floor. Susan asked if I would be happy to be interviewed for the documentary, and of course, I jumped at the chance. It meant that I had to reduce the amount of time I had at Caltech, but that was a trade I was willing to make. I was to meet her when I got back later.

The walk to Caltech took about 20 minutes, and when we got there, none of us knew where we were going, or how to get into any buildings, let alone which ones would be best.

We milled around the courtyards for a while, but before long, I had to head back to meet with Susan. Before I went in front of the camera, whilst they were talking to Nutsinee, she asked me some questions about my research, about what I felt about the kind of events that go on,  and about what its like working in the collaboration. Then, it was my time. I sat on a stool, I was micced up, and Susan led me into the interview gently. It was a nice experience – though I became very aware, as I was speaking into the camera, that what I said now might be made public, so I had to pick my words a bit more carefully than I might otherwise.

And then it was done. in ten or fifteen minutes of the same questions all over again, I was excused, un-micced, and I was on my way.

The conference dinner that evening in the ballroom was on the face of it a formal affair. Large round white tables, white tablecloths, a 2 forks, 3 glasses, and a waiting service. I had chosen to sit on a table with some familiar faces, and ended up sitting next to Max Isi – a Caltech student who I had seen about, and who worked within the CW group, but never had a reason to talk to. He made for good dinner company. The food of the evening was nice, a salad to start, chicken (was my choice) for main course, and a nice fruit tart for dessert.

After the food, it was time for the talks. Always expected at this kind of event, and usually delivered by Gaby, plus someone from the hosting institute, it was a little different this time. These talks were presented as a retrospective of how LIGO, Virgo and GEO came to be. The first speaker, Rai, spoke about how he came to the idea of an interferometer and about how it was to work on the prototypes at Caltech. What stuck with me was how different the landscape of the field was then. It seemed like there were just a fistful of people working in a lab. I guess with the tinted glasses of retrospection, all things tend toward fondness.

The second speaker, whose name I did not catch, told a parallel story of how the field developed in Germany, right from the early Webber bar detectors up to the start of the interferometric era with prototypes towards GEO. Third, Jim Hough spoke about how Ron Dreaver drove the field in Glasgow, about the 10m prototype, about how the British-German coalition came together to form GEO, and about the development of the 4-stage seismic isolation. The whole thing felt like looking back through a family tree, and exploring what led us, as LIGO, as Virgo, and as individual scientists, to work in the landscape that exists today.

After the speakers had done their part, the dinner guests broke out, some to the bar, some to their rooms, and some out into town. I stayed at the hotel bar for a time. The drinks had been discounted for this last night of the conference, which made a nnice change. As I was outside chatting in the courtyard, it seemed as though most of the conference was heading to the same bar – T Boyle’s – for some St. Patrick’s day celebration.

Foolishly, I joined them.


The atmosphere there was great. LIGO made up about half, if not more, of the patrons there that night. The bar had a cover band in. They weren’t particularly good, nor were they particularly bad, but they were having a good time, and it was reflected in what they played. The whole LVC crowd occupied the upstairs balcony area, more than thirty of us, easily.

As the night wore on, I found myself hanging outside with some others, gasping for air. There, I managed to meet what might be the only other LVC scientist from Somerset! He, Tom, was from Cheddar, and it was nice chatting to hiGuinessm. Once the band had finished playing, it was only another half hour before the bar kicked everyone out for the night. At that point, the group split into three. One party headed back to the hotel, another went to somebody’s apartment to carry on the fun, and a third party split off in search of alcohol to take to the apartment.

I found myself in that third party, but after ten minutes of walking back and forth and getting exactly nowhere, I figured that I should really go back to the hotel and split off to walk back alone.

You can see the aproximate locations on the map (you might have to pan down to California)

When I got to the hotel, I found a subset of that first returning party in the lobby. Having come back already, they had changed their mind and decided that they really wanted to stay  out. I have no will power, and am very susceptible to peer pressure (at least, that’s what I tell myself to make me feel better about bad decisions), so I ended up walking the 8 or so blocks with the others to the apartment.

When we got there, before we could even ring the apartment bell, bodies came pouring out. Duncan frustratedly said that they had had a noise complaint (it was very late on Thursday night) and the guests had to leave. That was it for me. It was definitely a bad idea to stay out any longer, so I turned tail and led some people back to the hotel.

By this point, I was pretty proficient at slipping back into the hotel room.

[Featured image left to right: Me, Darkhan, Vinny, Cao, Evan]



LVC Day 2

Another day, another muffin.

Though this time breakfast ofr me also included various melons. After a coffee, a mingle with some GWers, and a mouthful of sugar, it was off to the San Diego room for the second, and final day of the CW f2f meetings.

Today, many of the talks were focussed on sharing results from the old science runs S5 and S6 from iLIGO, as well as a few quick glances at preliminary stuff from O1. Not just the results, though, but updates in various pipelines. There was a little bit of musical chairs and some talks weren’t going to be presented, so others were brought forward.

At lunch, Jenne had promised to introduce me to her friend Greg, a researcher at Walla Walla (A town not too far from the Tri-Cities) who knew all of the good gay bars near Pasadena. His favourite was a country themed bar where they have square dancing lessons. It sounds fun, but not really my thing, and I didn’t bring the right shoes for all of that. We met over salad and pasta, though the lunch hall was busy by the time we got there. I managed to not sit by him to eat, instead sitting by Ryan – the network specialist at Hanford. Ryan and I spoke about this and that, having not really exchanged much more than a “hello” before now. So that was nice. Following food, a handful of people, myself included walked around the neighbourhood, to catch the sun whilst it was out.

After lunch, I headed back into the f2f talks to catch Avi’s talk. He had been doing some theoretical work on Ekman pumping and GW emission within a neutron star, modelling the length of this kind of glitch. I presented the paper upon which his work was based at journal club a few weeks back, but it was nice to see it again, and he furthered the work to predict the length scale of tCW emissions in various fluid models. It was a really interesting presentation.

After the next session, in the afternoon break, a few of us CWers met about tCWs. There are a core group of 8 or 9 people who work towards this, mostly distributed in Glasgow (myself, Matt and Graham) and AEI Hanover (Avi, MAP, Reinhard, David etc), all working on this common goal (all be it in a handful of parallel ways). It was twenty minutes to discuss ideas, implementation, and prospects for development and incorporation into pipelines.

After the break/meeting, I had decided that I would sit in with the EPO (education and public outreach) meeting for a moment, before Grant’s talk back at CW. Martin, Glasgow’s head of school for P&A was there, so before the meeting got started, I chatted to him about some ideas around the Glasgow Science Festival week in June, about some scrapbook  of highlights from this blog, a short video log in various places about LIGO, maybe a time lapse of the the Y-arm from the roof over a day to get the sunset and the stars moving around.

When the meeting got started later than I expected, there was talk about a board game developed called “Observe”. It’s a LIGO game, where players, each with their own model IFO, must prioritise commissioning, research or observation in order to first detect gravitational waves! Let me find a link – no luck, it wasn’t in the slides. I’ll come back when I find it.

[EDIT: The link to the game is here: It’s still somewhat beta, but it’s VERY playable, and quite fun]

Before we could get to the social media part, where I might have brought up this blog, I headed back to the CW room to catch the last two or three f2f talks for this meeting. Sfter which, it was time for the LAAC’s Detection Party.

We had each been given one free drink token for this night, though it couldn’t be used on the LIGO cocktails that were made special for the occasion. After an hour of wine and nibbles on trays, we were called into one of the larger rooms rooms for the obligatory speech from Gaby. (Gaby being the LVC’s spokesperson, who must spend ~50% of her time writing one speech or another announcement).

After some well picked words, a few rounds of applause, it was time for our world record attempt – the worlds biggest chirp. Chirping was a social media campaign started about the time of the detection, where chirpers would sing the sound of a BBH inspiral (Well, it’s really a BNS as they’re generally higher pitched and longer). We had a few hundred people doing it all at once. A ceremonial slice of GW150914 cake was cut, and it was go time for the party.


[Image credit to Conor Mow-Lowry]

In one corner of the largest room, the hotel had set up a small dance floor, and had some big ol’ speakers hooked up to an iPod. After a first dance from David Reitze and Gaby, everybody piled in and had a good time to some cheesy classics for a few hours. Dancing in Cali gets warm. By 10 though, the hotel said it was time to move along. My mind went straight to karaoke. A quick google showed that a place nearby, Barney’s Beanery, was the only karaoke bar for miles.

A handful of us, maybe 10 or 15 headed that was, but when we got there, the place was busy, and karaoke was off the table. It was, after all, a Tuesday night. We decided that it would perhaps be better to go somewhere quieter with a more chilled atmosphere. In the Beanery, we ran into some faces from the LVC – Christian and Melody, who recommended a spot around the corner, King’s Row, saying that they’d meet us there.

And that they did. It was a nice bar. We each had a go at buying each other drinks, we chatted about this and that, order 2 plates of chips (fries). Jennie and I, both from Glasgow, were talking to Melody a lot about Margot, mostly old stories from her days at Caltech. Melody and Margot were once, it seems, best buds. By 12.30am it was well past time to head back to the hotel. Sneaking in, trying not to wake the other two would get easier throughout the week.

[Header image credit: Nutsinee Kijbunchoo]

LVC Day 1

These meetings tend to start relatively early, not with the talks just before 9, but with the breakfast. It’s the first chance to catch up with colleagues since the last big conference, as many people come from far and wide. But for me as well, it’s a good chance to say hello to Glasgow researchers.

The GW community is very easy to get on with – particularly, data analysts from the CW, CBC and Burst groups tend to be very happy to get to know each other! (I’m sure the stochastic group is too, but I have not really interacted with them so much.)  For this conference,, people have come from all over the world – there are a few hundred attendees.antendeesantendees

Breakfast that day, as it seems to have been every day, was sweet. Muffins (mine tasted like bubblegum), glazed pastries, and fruits were on offer. And of course, coffee. What are academics without coffee. A munch and a chinwag later, and breakfast is done. There wasws a great deal of excitement, as LIGO just finished its first advanced observing run, and there was new data to look at for the first time in 5 years. The obvious announcement of the first detection asside, there is much more that the data has yet to reveal. This meeting would be a great place to share any possible first sign of whatever may come out of the woodwork.

The talks for the first two days of the conference are split into several parallel working group face to face (f2f) meetings. Certainly for the CW group, its a chance to share the progress that each group has made towards the working group’s many common goals.

Before the f2f started, I had a chance to catch up with my supervisor, Graham. I learned then that he reads these posts. Hi Graham. Graham was to chair the meeting with an iron fist – we had about 30 presentations to get through in two days, and historically, much like the CW pipelines, the talks have a tendency to run long! (That’s not fair – that’s common to all kinds of conferences). The presentations covered a lot of ground, from alterations to search pipelines to a look at results from science runs old and new – though the new results from the new were only rough preliminary first looks, it was exciting to see what aLIGO was capable of, right off the bat in O1.

The first break came at about 10.30, and I had a mission: to sort out my bank card. There was a Chase bank nearby, and they did, in fact, have a card printer there. I took the chance on the walk there and back to catch up with my dad, as it was still early afternoon in the UK.

In the second morning session on Monday, I made a few quick edit to my slides. I had agr to meet with Vinny and Robert ot go through them over lunch, so I wanted to have them in a presentable form. With our talk looming that afternoon, I could feel nerves starting to kick in. Even though sitting in the CW f2f felt very informal (and I’m sure I would feel a lot more relaxed if it was a [resentatiion to just CW folks), the inclusion of Detchar and Stochastic to the talk, and the larger room was a little daunting.

Robert OK’ed the slides, with a few edits here and there – clarification, notation, nothing major. Which was a relief. Working with Robert and Vinny benefits from their relaxed attitudes! When the talk came around, we just went through it, and took the questions and suggestions from the floor. The session was interesting – joint Detchar/CW/Stochastic. All of the groups are interested in probing deep into the spectrum with high frequency resolution, so noise lines and combs are of primary concerns. I think that the stochastic group have some really cool tools to help identify this kind of thing.

And with that, the first day was done. In principle, work was done for the day, though evening networking means that meetings and smaller discussions can carry on for much longer if needs be. I took the opportunity, on this first night of the conference, to go out for dinner with Graham. We had asked Alan Weinstein for suggestions – which we ultimately ignored. But Alan clued Graham up to the antics that I had achieved at the last LVC, in Budapest, where we had accidentally skipped dinner in favour of karaoke.

Graham and I headed out towards Old Pasadena to look for somewhere to eat, but with neither of us having a good idea of what was around, we settled pretty quickly on a compromise. It wasn’t out in the sun, nor on a side street. Instead , it was the Cheesecake Factory. It was nice talking to Graham, one on one, outside of work. It’s not something that I had done before, but it was refreshing. The conversation did eventually turn to work, but not in an ominous way, or a forced way, and I came away from it with a clear feeling of the direction I’m heading once I’m back from the USA, and a fuzzy feeling in my head from the beer. We came back to the hotel for about 7.30, and with the night still young, I set about making further plans.

Vinny responded the net I cast out. I met him in the lobby, where he led us to a car. A car, in LA!? He had a friend who moved here a few years ago, Derrek. He works in biotechnology. I got in the car and was asked “What do you wanna see?” Pretty quickly, we settled on Hollywood Boulevard. Well aware that it was a tourist trap, and probably not really worth devoting a full evening to. Besides, Derrek couldn’t stay out late. We whizzed along the highways and byways into downtown LA, found a place to park up, and strolled on down. We saw Iron Man, Batman and Black Elvis, all posing with happy tourists.

Outside of the Chinese Theatre, we poked around the handprints and footprints, and looked at some of the stars in the paving stones along the street. We wandered up to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not – quite possibly the most bizzare concept for a musem – a modern day freak show, and recreations of things that seem freaky. I just didn’t get it.

After 20 minutes, we headed back to the car, and came back to the hotel. Vinny and I stayed up for a drink or two at the hotel bar ($9 for a G&T!) before heading to bed and drawing day 1 to a close.


I’m doing science (and I’m still alive)


I guess lets start at the beginning of the week: Monday.


Monday was a holiday here, president’s day. I don’t know what it’s really about. All I know is that we can take the day off. And that Darkhan and Hang want to go into work for the afternoon. But at least for the morning, I was feeling a little slow – chalk it up to the cookie from Sunday night. So I did my thing and took the morning slowly before leaving the apartment at 1pm for the site.

At the site that day, I managed to get a whole load of admin things done that I’d been sitting on for a while. Expenses claims, scanning documents, getting some printouts. The works. It was kinda uninteresting. The evening was no more interesting either.  So!


So Tuesday was to be the day that we (the Fellows) met with Mike, our supervisor. But I had a few thread that I could follow, making some plots, looking for this and that. It wasn’t really enough to dig my teeth into though. So Tuesday was a dull grind. It sort of felt like it was the first full work day after the announcement of the Event, everybody was still swapping stories.

Eventually, though, whilst in the control room making some plots on a computer, Robert walked in. He was looking to talk to Vinny, but he was also looking for me. And this was one meeting that I had been waiting for. Robert asked if I had a project in mind to talk to him about, and instantly, I replied “Combs”. Combs refer to noise in the detector which present as fixed-frequency oscillations which occur at regular frequency intervals (e.g excitation at nHz, 2nHz, 3nHz, … up to some end frequency).


Can you see why?

It turns out that this is also what Vinny had been looking at too, and it would be great to get to know what I’m doing by following Vinny around and helping him work. So between us, we settled on searching for the 0.5Hz combs, starting with a magnetometer survey, first by looking at the plots, and then by placing a temporary  magnetometer in various locations. I don’t know why Robert jumped to magnetometer straight away, but I trust what he says. He is Mr. PEM.

With that, we had a plan. Tuesday, make all the plots we need. Wednesday, go out to the Y-arm with a magnetometer and see what happens, and Thursday, we get into the corner station! I was so excited to start sciencing properly!

So after that, and with some instruction from Vinny on how best to use the relevant software, we make coherence plots and spectra for every single magnetometer channel in the LIGO site. By the time we were done, it was time to go home. Mike hadn’t had time for a meeting, so that was to be tomorrow.

When I got home that evening, with a few hours to kill before bed, I decided to go for a run at the gym in the apartment complex. In my view, treadmills are different to roads, and running indoors is weird – I miss the wind in my face. It turns out that podcasts make a good running companion. 3 miles later, I went home, ate, and chilled for the night.


Gearing up for a good day of science, I headed in looking forward to the day. And after a pitstop at Starbucks, Darkhan, Hang and I got into work pretty early. When Vinny arrived, we rallied around a computer again to reaffirm the conclusions from all the plots the made the day prior. They seemed to show a 0.5Hz comb stronger in one magnetometer than the other, (one computer rack vs the other) in all locations where these racks occur at the site. So that was a clue to start us.

Before we could do anything though, we had to get a work order. The process for getting a work order wasn’t necessarily straight forward. It was just filling in a form, then asking the operator at the time who we needed to sign it. So we run around, trying to find the relevant people to sign it for half an hour. Job done. Next, we gather the equipment that we need, jump into the site car, and make the 4km drive down to the Y-arm.


Now, I’ve been excited about going to the arms. It’s where all of the action doesn’t happen – they have to be specifically quiet, clean and free from disturbances. I got a brief chance to go onto the floor where all of the optics were (but didn’t really look around), before going next door to the electronics bays. Vinny and I ended up spending a few hours in that EBAY, moving the magnetometer, putting it onto a rack, waiting fifteen minutes to take data, move the magnetometer, make plots of the last fifteen minutes. We were there for a few hours, and had some time to kill. It’s a good way to get to know somebody!

We come back for the meeting with Mike, where we all exchange plans for the upcoming LVC (LIGO – Virgo Collaboration) conference coming up next month in Pasadena, and work we’ve done in the past few weeks, as well as just a jovial, informal chat all together. Following that, and a sandwich, we head back out to the Y-arm and continue taking data for the day.

On Wednesday evening, once Hang arrived home, we got cooking. He’s not confident cooking, so for now, we’re cooking together. Tonight, we decided to make a chicken pasta sauce with tomatoes and sardines. It turned out nice, and gave a good chance to get to know each other. Our common thread is anime – he watches a lot of it, and as soon  I can,. I will thrust Cowboy Bebop upon him!

And with that, Thursday


On Thursday, Vinny and I spent the day in the EBAY at the corner station. We had noticed some oddities in the data we had taken yesterday – the combs that we were looking for were present, but we hadn’t applied the usual gain onto the magnetometer. So we tried to correct this today. Time passes, doobly doo music, and by the end of the day, our data look even worse! Vinny had to run out at 3pm to grab some lunch, and in the course, locked his keys into his car. Without him, I couldn’t go back into the EBAY to look at the problem, and so it stayed there overnight.


That evening, Evan tells me that I have been invited to Daniel’s house for a dinner party. I have heard whispers of these events, and that if you miss one, you’re struck from the list, and that is NOT what I want! So Evan and I head over, neither of us having been before, and neither knowing what to expect.

Daniel’s house was crowded, maybe 12 people were over! Luckily, Daniel is something of a wine fanatic, so the socialising was not hard at all! There were no unfamiliar faces there, except perhaps Dick and Mary, Dick has been with LIGO for aeons, and Mary has been with Dick just as long.

After the first (delicious) course, Jenne mentions to me, offhandedly, about a forced march around the block between mains and dessert. The talk turn to Aus, Brit and American cultural differences, and to the general election going on across America, standard dinner party talk. The food was beautiful. Daniel is Swiss, and his cooking is very pan-European, an Italian starter, and Austrian main,  and then a forced march in the cold rain.

That’s right. You either go for a walk between courses, or you wash up and forfeit dessert. So I chose to walk. Of course, walking permits talking – and the conversation moved from weekend plans, to partying in Pasadena, round back to some work related things. When we got back, dessert was fantastic! And there was still wine and whiskey to be had. I had a fantastic time, and I sincerely hope that I get invited again. [If I knew the walking route, I would plot it on the map, but I don’t. So I can’t]


We had some ideas about how to attack our bad data, so we dived right back into the corner station, bouffant caps and shoe covers in hand, we were prepared for another 5 hours sitting in a loud room full of wires.

But the difference today is that we have good data coming through from the magnetometer! So by the afternoon, with all the data we needed, and all the plots we needed, we left the magnetometer in the EBAY over the weekend to get a different perspective on the problem. Roll on Friday evening!

Nutsinee asked if we fancied food and drink at McCays, (of course we did), so myself, Evan, Darkhan, Nutsinee and Hang all met there. Good food, good times, and good sweet strawberry cider was had. Nutsinee had put in an order for some GW150914 t-shirts, and I had bought a shirt, a hoodie and a tie. They are due to arrive before the LVC next month (excited!)


After the bar, we had hatched a loose plan for a board game night. Evan mentioned a store in Richland that was open late tonight – Adventures Underground. I went there and picked up a couple of games – The Resistance: Avalon, and Boomtown. Unfortunately, the plans for board game night fell apart, but nevertheless, I will put these games to good use.

That night, I went to bed and watched some Tabletop on youtube to check out a few more games, that now, I have my eye on. One day, maybe.



Einstein Was Right!

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 HoughKip 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!

Shane Larson’s Harmonies of Spacetime

Daniel Williams’ Riding the Wave

Sean Leavey’s own view

Amber Struver’s article here

Becky Douglass’ GW: The Big Discovery

Roy Williams’ blog here



Get the Ball Rolling

Another early morning. I woke up about 5am today, this jetlag is starting to get to me. I need to be able to have a little lie in another morning. Co I wonder into the kitchen, microwave a cup of coffee from the pot that I put on last night, and sit down to a bowl of Rice Chex. A shower later, and I’m off to meet Darkhan for the ride in.


[Source :WebMD, apparently!]

On the way to work, we stop to pick up another visitor to LIGO (whos name eludes me) from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). We all get to work, and on goes the grind. For the morning, whilst I’m waiting for a chance to meet with and talk to Mike, I read more, and I work on some Matlab stuff that I’ve had hanging over. Throughout the day, I meet some other people, like Alisdair(sp?) (I think, not a good day for names), another Glasgow alumnus, but a veteran, not working at Caltecxh and touring briefly between LHO and then LLO, and like Ellie, who is working over here for the remainder of the month, finishing up some stuff relevant to her Ph.D back in Adelaide. She’d spent a year here previously.

At lunch, I call Joe. Let me talk to you about Joe. As I’m writing this, the day after it happened, Joe has consented to featuring more heavily, so here we go. Joe and I first met during my undergrad studies in Swansea (South Wales, if you don’t know). We’ve been together for what is fast approaching 4 years, and they’ve been great. We are very much in love. Joe is still studying at Swansea, so we’ve been doing this long distance for two years already, since I graduated. Moving over to America has been hard so far. The time zones make it difficult to talk, but we try to talk every day, but its usually over text. He’s in his final year at Swansea, after which we are going to move in together in Glasgow, and that thought makes me very happy indeed. So whilst my time here in Richland is going to be great, it is bittersweet. Whilst I’m settling, it still feels bitter, but I have to give it time. I just got off the phone to him now, actually. Here, its about 8pm on Saturday evening, February 6th. There, it’s 4am Sunday morning. He was drunk, and sweet. And very drunk.



After lunch, I run into Mike as he’s grabbing coffee. We agree to meet this afternoon, when he has a moment. \time passes, tick tock, and we meet. This is the first time that I’m speaking to Mike in a way that isn’t just in passing. It seems like everyone is vying for his time, so I try to make the most. In this meeting, we discuss my strengths. That is, what I’ve been working on with Graham (my Glasgow supervisor) for the continuous wave (CW) search effort, and what I would like to work on whilst I’m here. I mention that I’m not so good with my hands, and would like to stick to coding, if possible. It didn’t seem that that went over so well. Between Evan, who has an old CW hat, and Darkhan, who is working on calibration (I don’t know what Vinny does – we’ve barely exchanged more than a sentence), there aren’t many practical fellows. Anyway, we agree on something to get me started. It’s a little fetch-questy, but that’s ok. It gets me to know people, and get familiar with some of the basics of working with the detector. He gives me some names to follow up, some software to look at, and he’s going to dig out an old report, so that I have something to do going forward.

So I send out the emails, look for some software, and after that, go out and try to look at the machines in the control room. The control room is a room full of computers and giant srceens all on one wall which read the live status of the detector. I log in, try to get acquainted with some of the software, and with no real agenda, slink back to my desk shortly thereafter.



Tick Tock. Time passes, and its home time. Once again, the jetlag has shattered me, and all I wanna do is sleep. But I told Darkhan that I needed to go do groceries, and that’s right, I do. So we do. After dropping the other guy (seriously, names, am I right?) back to PNNL, we go to a Safeway supermarket. It’s a really nice shopping environment, and seems much cheaper than Albertson’s. I buy, like, everything. Freezer food, meats, veg, fruit, dried things, cleaning products. The kind of shop that would normally come to £60+. At the checkout, I get a savings card, which brings the total from about $100 to $75. At current exchange, that £50 or so. I like Safeway. Then, Darkhan goes to get his food for the evening at the BK drive-thru, and offers to take me to a place called Fred Meyer to pick up some Tupperware. The place was HUGE. We didn’t find what we were looking for, so we went home.

Map time!


Back home, I microwaved the last of the bolognese, which was about all that I’d eaten since Wednesday. On Facebook, a friend asks me, regarding the expenditure at Glasgow airport “Doesn’t an F-1 visa have a grace period?” to which I respond “I don’t think so”, and then checking. It turns out that yes, it does. The end date of the visa corresponds to the end date of the program on which I am enrolled, and there are a few grace periods involved, but the information seems to be shaky, but it is certainly possible to extend a stay. Bugger.

And with that, I messaged Joe, who was then considering waking up, and went to bed. I was feeling particularly unsettled. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally. I wasn’t yet in the swing of work. I wasn’t used to the time-zone, I hadn’t had much interpersonal contact outside of work. But I have a bank appointment, and numerous other things to do tomorrow. Better get some decent shut-eye.

[Featured Image Source]


Travel is a non-trivial pursuit

So, here I am, in the flat. It’s about 6am (PST – assume all are PST now) and I’m awake. Not the “I should get up” kind of awake, but the “I am up, what next?” kind of awake. I have a few things that I need to do before the day’s end. Get to the bank, go to AT&T (or similar), and maybe get some more food, for the evening and days to come. But for now, all that I have are stinky clothes from the day before, and a promise that luggage is on its way.

So I did what any rational person would do, and stayed in bed, on my phone for a while. I think I spoke to Joe, posted to facebook, you know, the usual. And after a while I decided that I could stay in bed no more. I was stinky and I was hungry. So I tried out the shower. Luckily, the apartment was enough like aa hotel that they had some soap and shampoo samples already in the bathroom, as well as a bath towel, a hand towel and a flannel. I can confirm that the shower was lovely. The pressure was good. The temperature was right. There is a heat lamp in the bathroom ceiling. It was all the right feels. Once out, I had to put on yesterday’s clothes, but I mixed and matched what few elements were available to minimise the stink.


Now that I am appropriately garbed, I venture into the kitchen to see what’s available to me. And the kitchen is lovely. Flat top stove, with a big microwave over it, and an oven underneath. All digitally controlled and integrated together. A fridge-freezer full of bread and cheese and fake butter and ham (there’s my food plan). But I need a kettle. And there is one! It’s a stove-top kettle with a whistle spout. So tea ad toast and telly!


The apartment comes with some kind of cable tv. I don’t know which channels are which, but it is explained what channels are available in a welcome folder. I flick through some channels to find some mindless TV to appease me until my bags arrive. And that was fine. I also took the time to check in with family, let them know what’s going on, and to contact those I needed to at Glasgow university. Somebody mentioned that I should call the airline (Delta) about my luggage, so I do. A phone call to the airport lets me know not to expect my luggage before 1pm. And so I settled in for a few more hours. It is in this time that I start this very blog!

Eventually, at about 1:45, my bags arrive! But almost immediately, whilst still at the door with the deliverer, I notice some damage! The zip sliders (not just the tag, not the teeth that interlock, but the slider that does the locking) have both disappeared, with the padlock which held them together! I was told at the door that perhaps the TSA got into it for some reason, in which case, they would have put a note into the bag. So I wrench apart the teeth, as one must with a broken zip, and there is no note. So before I unpack the bag, I get back onto the phone to try and talk to Delta about the issue. “I’m sorry, sir, but Delta doesn’t cover zippers.” I wouldn’t mind if  this was only cosmetic damage, but without the ability to seal the bag, it becomes a box with a flappy lid, not a suitcase. So I talk to somebody else, and she asks me to bring in the case in question. I have to tell her that, as I don’t drive, I’ll have to wait until the evening, after she has left work.

So regardless, there’s nothing more to be done now, so I unpack (throw things all over the floor, future Bryn can deal with that), put on some clean clothes (which felt so good), chat to Joe real quick, and left the apartment in pursuit of my errands.

But where am I going, and how am I going to get there? I have no idea where I’m going, and I have no mobile data left for the month. So I guess I have to find someone to ask. The apartment that I’m staying at is part of a complex called Mosaic on the River. It’s pretty swish, but it’s got a centralized office. There must be someone in there, right?

Terri-Ann was in there. I assume that’s howw you spell her name, anyway. I walk into her office and tell her that I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. Like a trooper, more than happy to help with a smile, she contacts the bus company to find the relevant bus routes, tells me where the Chase bank and AT&T store are, and gives me directions on a post-it note. She was very helpful.

So naturally, I ignore her advice. Not knowing what a bus stop looks like (they look like adverts on a pole, really) I instead elect to cross the highway and walk the way into town. I got a little lost, passing through the residential areas. I’m sort of struck that the residential parts seem really deprived. One-story wooden houses, often with a dusty front lawn and at least one car each in their driveway. The sidewalk (I’m still getting used to the different vernacular) is intermittent, as it appears some lawns extend to the road, and some sidewalks are just gravelly parts on the road side. I walked fast through some areas. Pasrtly because of time constraints, but partly not.

Eventually I make it back to the main road. Lee Drive, I think, and walk along until Jedwin street, where I have been promised by Terri-Ann to find a Chase bank branch.


So naturally, I walk in. At the counter, it appears that nobody has free time to see me today, and besides, I don’t have the right ID with me. I needed to provide proof of address.

So back homewards I go. But I don’t make it far before I spot at thrift store. “I’m gonna pop some tags”, I think to myself, and laugh a little inside, then die a little inside. In the thrift store, it occurs to me that there is nothing that I might desire from a thrift store. I think that a boardgame might be a nice icebreaker though. So, scrolling through the shelves of boardgames, I see four or five boxes of Trivial Pursuit. That classical boardgame which is fun for all, and torture if you don’t know the answers. The danger with Trivial Pursuit is that if the version you have is earlier than the culture that you know, then it is fun for exactly nobody. In that thrift store, there was not a Trivial Pursuit newer than 1985. So I left empty handed.

Instead, I stopped into a grocery store (Albertson’s) on the way home to buy some food. I decide that to settle myself, I’ll cook, but I’ll keep itt easy. Bolognese. But — I think — I’ll need everything from the oil to the onions. For $40 lighter, I leave the store and head for home. Walking back along Lee Blvd, I pass somebody waiting at a bus stop. We exchange a nod and a smile, so I figure I’ll stop to talk.

[Map time!]

“You’ve come a long way from Albertson’s!”

“Not really that far”

“Where you headed?”

“Just along Duportail, past the highway”

“This bus goes that way, and besides, you’re going the wrong way!”

So we end up chatting. She fronts me the bus fare, as I have no change ($1.25). Her name is Danielle. She grew up here, but has lived between Richland and Portland her whole life. Her parents own horses, and she stays with them now, to look after the animals. We had a lovely conversation, and she gave me a bus map, and told me when to get off. But more than that, it seemed that the whole bus (~8 people) got involved with our conversation, one moment or another. Turns out another guy on the bus, John, is also headed to Mosaic, so I walk back with him and chat along the way.

I get home. I put away food, and start packing away the clothes that are now strewn all over the floor of my bedroom. Just as I finish, Evan knocks on the apartment door. He asks if I got my luggage ok, so I invite him in, and show him the damaged luggage. He agreed to take me back to the airport later to lodge a complaint and see what can be done.

But for now, it’s time to eat. I write some, and cook. It may have been expensive, but about $28 of ingredients makes 8 portions of bolognese. I wolf some down and off we go to the airport. On arrival, we go to the Delta desk, put the luggage on a counter and press the “Call” button to get some attention. The woman who shows up is the same woman from last night. Long hair, beanie and hi-viz jacket. I explain to her the situation with the suitcase.

“We don’t cover zippers”

I tell her that I wouldn’t mind if it were just cosmetic damage, and I wouldn’t mind if the luggage didn’t have its extended trip via Seattle, and I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t compromise the whole bag, and I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t need to use it again. So I chased it. She says that she can lodge a complaint for us, but only after she’s asked her manager. Whilst filling the complaint, the manager emerged.

Now, look, the luggage wasn’t new. It was my mum’s. She told me “I don’t mind if it doesn’t make it back”. It won’t. But I didn’t know how old it was. When asked, I had to respond. “I don’t know. 5 or 10 years old.” – to which I was told by the manager “I wouldn’t get your hopes up, Delta don’t pay out for baggage more than five years old.”

So with the complaint filed, that was that. We turned and went home.

Then, I went to bed.


[Featured image source]

It’s the journey that matters

So, I’m set to get from Glasgow, Scotland, over to a small airport called Pasco, in Washington. On paper it’s fine, but in practice, it’s a different kettle of fish.

[A note on the map: I want to keep it fairly local, so only the final stop airport will make it onto the map today. Else we’d have 3 countries in 2 continents, 3 states and 5 airports]

Throw in some storms, some extra charges, lots of snow and a diversion, and we have a very tired Brynley. So where should we begin. The beginning? Buckle up, this could take a while.


Well, that’s just throwing things into a suitcase? Right. Let’s move on.

The morning in question

Picture this. It was a stormy night, with high wind warnings in place over the west of Scotland. Storm Henry wasn’t having any fun. And nor was I. I had a taxi booked to pick me up and take me to the airport at 3:30am, and I was having trouble sleeping the night before. I was a real whole hot mess. I was unwell from all the food I’d been trying to eat to empty the fridge, I was stressed about the travel ahead, and what awaited me on the other side, I was emotional about leaving my partner half the world away for a third of a year, and I was tired, not being able to sleep because of the above reasons.

Anyway, eventually, 3:30 came. My flatmate woke up to see me off, and that meant a whole lot to me, and then I was in the taxi with 2 suitcases, a big ol’ backpack and a huge ball of nerves. No turning back now. It’s windy and wet, and I can feel the taxi shaking in the wind. I only thought of “what if…”. If the plane couldn’t leave.

So I get to the airport fine, and go to baggage check. This is just a routine thing, right. Put the bags behind the desk and go through to security, right? It only took me an hour, and approximately ten minutes of that was in queueing. First of all, alarm bells rang when the woman behind the edsk, upon seeing my passport, told me “We have a problem – your visa expires before your return flight.”. Oops. It’s all I can do to say “Excuse me? Are you sure? Can I see?”, and carry on. It turns out that in the excitement of counting out 120 days (the length of my visa) from February first, I had forgotten that 2016 was a leap year. So before anything else could be done, I had to rearrange my return journey. But at a charge of [REDACTED].

That was honestly my bad. So I get back in line to go to another desk where somebody can take a payment. We go through it all, and I’m told that I have to queue again to finish checking my bags. On to the 3rd counter of the morning.

This time, the attendant is a bit more chatty and reassuring. “Can we weigh your carry-on bag. Hmm, just under 12kg, that’s ok. Now, put your first bag onto the belt. Do you have any spare batteries in here?” Then I say, foolishly, “No, I have some in my carry-on though”. Suddenly, it’s like an interrogation but with very complicated rules. In my carry-on, I had 2 laptop computers, each containing one battery, plus one spare battery for my work computer. I explain this to the attendants, who are now conferring behind the desk about the various regulations. “You’re only allowed up to 2 spare batteries.” “Well, that’s ok, I only have one.” “But most people only travel with one laptop, so it’s sort of two” This idiocy went back and forth for five minutes before we (read: I) compromised and moved my one spare battery into another pocket, so that it wouldn’t short and spark somewhere.

Right. Then I said “I have to add another bag, I could only book one in online”. “Oh, you’ll have to talk to Melissa for that.” Melissa wasn’t her name, but it was somewhere between 4 and 5am at this point, and I was, at the very least, disgruntled. Melissa, the woman who had taken my charge for re-booking the flights was currently engaged with another customer, so this is where most of the queueing occurred. In the end, it was a simple process to book another item of luggage on, and it cost me a further £[REDACTED]. But this was planned and necessary.

So now, an hour after arriving at the baggage check, the bags go down the conveyor belt and I am free to go upstairs and into security.

Cue the random swabbing. I don’t know what they were looking for. Drugs, explosives, pathogens. They didn’t find anything, so off I trot into the departure lounge. A room for waiting made almost entirely of clocks. Anyway, time passes, yadda yadda and before I know it, I’m on my very empty flight with three seats to myself, off to Amsterdam.

Flight the first – Glasgow to Amsterdam



Nothing exciting happened. It was an hour and a half from 6am (UTC) to 8.30am (CET). I’ve spend lots of time in Schiphol before. I knew what to expect.

At Schiphol



Whilst at Schiphol, I had a few hours to kill. So I found followed my boarding pass to my gate. Except it wasn’t a gate, it was pre-security. I had a nice light grilling from US immigration before being told that my real gate was a little way away. So I go to that gate, pull a laptop and get to wasting time! I had 2 or 3 hours of podcasts before I sprung for a coffee and a sandwich, then the flight to Minneapolis boarded. This was the big one. Lots of hours long, over that Atlantic, and I had requested an aisle seat (I’d been stung before by window seats on long flights. When boarding the plane, I’ve been pre-cleared for security, but OH! Cue random check number two! Another person, swabbing my hands, trousers, coat and jacket, putting into a machine only to tell me that I didn’t need swabbing. Hoozah.

After waiting for what felt like forever, onto the plane.

Flight the Second Amsterdam to Minneapolis



This was long. But fortunately, I had both a window seat and an aisle seat. Two whole seats to myself. Or rather, one for me, and one for the blanket/headphones/pillow/laptop/tablet. Entertainment was a must. On this flight, I knew that I had to get some sleep, but that it wouldn’t be possible without distraction from the endless hum of the engines.

Throughout this flight, I consumed:

and some in-flight service/meals including

  • A hot towel
  • Peanuts, pretzels
  • Veggie lasagne, seeded roll, butter, cheese and crackers, salad, one glass of water
  • Another glass of water
  • Some biscuits
  • A bottle of water
  • Another hot towel
  • Cheese and salami sandwich, chocolate icecream, and a coffee.

During this flight, I tried to nod off. I got maybe an hour, or 90 minutes of sleep total, in it was really shallow, interrupted, intermittent surface-sleep.  Not ideal.

So for the majority of the flight, the main lights were out. Most of the blinds were down (except when the row opposite would open them and check every five minutes) So at least it wasn’t a strenuous journey. About half an hour before we were due to land (15:00 CET? Not sure of the time zone) is when we get our final meal, the lights come up, and I desperately want more time so that I can sit through the final episode of The Jinx. The pilot announces that Minneapolis is under snowy conditions, and we can’t land until it has been cleared off of the runway. This gets me enough time to finish my show, but I also know that it eats into my time at the airport. This is definitely a good thing. I was scheduled to spend 7 hours in Minneapolis. In the end, I didn’t even have 4.

At Minneapolis St. Paul



“Light snow” is how the weather was described over the tannoy in the plane. When we landed, it was at least a foot deep. So after we had all disembarked (or “deplaned”, apparently), we were herded through passport checks. This was a long queue. My backpack was heavy (12kg + a bottle of water I had bought earlier), I was tired, and I had nobody to chat with. When I’m grumpy, inane chat makes me feel better, somehow. So anyway, I’m queueing for maybe half an hour before I get called forward. I turn over the relevant documents, jam my fingers against the fingerprint scanner, and go onn through to the baggage claim.

Now, for customs, we have to claim our baggage here, then we can re-check it almost instantly. I had nothingg to declare at customs, so I just strolled on through, and took this opportunity to shuffle things about. I put some books and chargers from my backpack into one of these bags. That made the rest of the trip easier.

After that, there was a small security stand. I took off my boots, coat, jacket, bag, took out both laptops and walked through the detector. This time, there was no random security check. So I get dressed again, and see if I can find a departures board. I can, and whilst scanning for Pasco, my next and final stop, I find someone else headed that way. She’s a lovely woman, whose name eludes me. A social worker (or something) flying back from Berlin. So as we make our make our way towards the gate together, I switch on my phone for the first time today. It buzzes almost non-stop for five minutes as it inhales the notifications from people wishing me well, and checking in with me (shucks, guys). We get to our gate, having heard whispers of cancelled flights from all over. But I have other priorities. I find a restroom, find a coffee, and grab a chair at the gate, get out my laptop (to check my emails on the AWFUL WiFi at the airport (You should be ashamed, MSP, but your 3 letter code is the same as that of millisecond pulsars everywhere, so I’ll go easy on you.)

So I sit down with my coffee, my bad internet, and I call my man. Its late back in Swansea, and he’s tired, so we chat for a while. But then, after ten or fifteen minutes, the area is very quiet. It’s still snowing out. So I think to check the flight board.

Flight the Third Minneapolis to Pasco

“Sorry Joe, my flight’s been cancelled. I have to go do something.” I’m directed towards a service desk. I was not in a mood to fuck about. So I queue (again) to see what’s going on. The clerks are handing out leaflets for reduced price hotels in Minneapolis, so that we can stay if we have to catch a flight the next day.


I didn’t travel ALL DAY just to wait in the wrong city. Another queue opens up, so I join it early and get seen by one woman, who would soon get distracted by, I dunno, a fly or something. Thankfully the two who remained were much more hopeful. I think to myself “Now’s the time, B-dawg” (I’m B-dawg in my inner monologue, get over it). “You’ve seen the films. Lay on the charm and the British accent really thick. They’ll love it, you’ll enjoy the craic, it’ll be good.” And let me tell you, that brief interaction might have been the most fun I had all day. One woman was chatting about how she preferred rain over snow. “You’d hate the UK, you’d always be wet. From the rain.” Another complaining how the cheap phones made her ear sweat. The word “Sexy” doesn’t always warrant laughter, but I’m glad that it did.  Between them, they managed to book me onto a flight out of Minneapolis into Salt Lake City, and from there onto Pasco, my final stop for the day.

But all this had taken up a lot of time, and by the time they were done, I was forced to run across an airport to the gate I was meant to be at. “At least” they said “the WiFi is better there”. Refer to the map above. I had to get from gate C23 to gate G13 in about fifteen minutes on foot, tired and disgruntled. But at least the WiFi was better there. And it was. From there, I called my supervisor and told him that I was not going to be where I was expected for collection.

Flight the Third Minneapolis to Salt Lake City



It was a short flight. I was sat next to a woman from Montana. She seemed nice enough. I had the window seat. The plane needed some prep before take-off. De-icing mostly. It was sprayed with what I can only assume to be antifreeze on the runway. We were in the air for about 2 hours. I slept through much of that. So I missed out on the free drink/snack. I did manage to get some podcasts in though.

At Salt Lake City

By this point, finding the departures board and running to the next gate was second nature. SLC is another big airport. Where Minneapolis was uniform white from the snow, SLC looked similar, but I could tell that it wasn’t. Being in Utah, I could only assume that it was sandy. By this point, I didn’t know or care what time it was. It must have been almost certainly midnight on Wednesday morning UTC.

So, find the gate, find the loo, check what time the flight arrives to Pasco. I sent a text to my supervisor, to check in that somebody would be there to pick me up. Then, I just had to wait for my plane to board. And it did.

[A note to the reader: You might notice the detail bleeding out as this post goes on. This is for a few reasons. First, as my day wore on, my awareness was reduced, so I missed much of the detail. Secondly, there was nothing of note for much of this. An airport is an airport. They all look like sterile blurs as you run through them. And third, you may notice that this is a long post. I would sort of like it to finish, but I have a duty to you, reader, to get to the end in a proper manner.]

Flight the Fourth Salt Lake City to Pasco



Snoozefest. It was a smaller plane than any I’ve been on before. We wee offered a choice of peanuts, pretzels or shortbread. So I chose shortbread. Naturally. Then I slept, I’m sure. I’m not sure what I listened to, but it might have been this.

At Pasco

Queue the map. I’ll add a legend for the colours soon.

So I landed in Pasco. At last. It must have been about 10pm local time, or 6am UTC. I know, because I was very tired. So I follow the crowds (read: Slightly more than 3 people) to the baggage claim, and wait. And wait. I realise that I have no idea who I am looking for. I haven’t seem any faces, and I know no names. And my baggage didn’t appear to be coming through the carousel. A man in a green jacket positions himself next to me and coyly asks me “Are you here for LIGO?”


I say yes, shake a hand, and return my gaze to the carousel. He introduced himself as Darkhan. Another man joins us, and introduces himself as Evan. (I had heard some about Evan before). We go in search of my luggage. Evan leads the way to Delta’s customer service desk, where a woman with long hair and a beanie awaits us. We explain the situation, hand over my luggage check number of the back of my boarding pass. She tells me that my bags made their way over to Seattle, and that they would be on the next flight into Pasco tomorrow, and then delivered to my home address. Nothing more to be done. All I have with me are my computers, one US-UK power adapter, a phone and a book. And some very, very stinky clothes that I have been sitting (read:stewing) in for more than 24 nervous hours.

Darkhan and Evan lead me to the car and ask me “Is there anything that you need?”.


So we drive a little way into a big store, called Winco, or something. I don’t know where it is, but I’ll try to find it for the map. This shop was more like a giant warehouse, stocked to the rafters with cardboard boxes full of cereal, bread, beverages, produce, cheese. I can take my pick! I only have limited funds for the time being though, and I only want to get the essentials.

  • Apples
  • Cheese
  • Ham
  • Bread
  • Butter (substitute, it tastes too buttery)
  • Beer
  • Tea
  • Cereal
  • Milk

There was this whole discussion about trying new things. You see. When getting my coffee in Minneapolis, I had left milk, and the barista had said “There’s half-and-half over there.”, to which my response was “What’s half-and-half?”. She had no way to answer that, so I elected for 2-percent milk instead. But in this shop, I wanted to try the good brands, things that were popular here. So I did. After checking out, Evan drives us back. We live next door to each other, so that’s at least convenient. They drop me home, help me rescue the keys from the lockbox on the door, and show me around my apartment. It was lovely, but what I cared about most was that it had both a bathroom and a bed.

Aaaaaand we’re home.

I did enough to plug in my phone, get the WiFi code, and post to facebook, and I think I called Joe, back in the UK, all before conking out. The next day, I knew, I would have some errands to run about the town, but only after my luggage made it back to me. It was time to sort out the jet-lag

[Featured image link here]

Getting started [Science mode: Ready]

Hello, world.

I am Bryn. I am a Ph.D student at the University of Glasgow, but for now, I am not at the University of Glasgow. Let me explain.

My research is in the field of astrophysics, but more specifically gravitational waves. As with any project, industry, or activity, there are times where something only has a little attention, and times where it’s in vogue. Right now, in physics, gravitational waves are looking pretty cool, but I’ll get to that later on.

Further, if you’re involved with something, there are often places to be. Stock markets have Wall Street, the BBC has Salford, and gravitational waves have a handful of observatories around the world. These are LIGO Livingston and Hanford observatories (LLO & LHO) in Louisiana and Washington respectively, in the USA; Virgo, near Pisa, Italy; GEO600, near Hanover, Germany; and KAGRA, in the Kamioka mines in central Japan.


[Source: Fig 1]

Like I say, it’s only a handful, but it’s a handful more than there have ever been. More importantly, with the effect that technology tends to have, these observatories are getting better at observing with time. LLO and LHO have just finished (mid 2015) major upgrades from the initial LIGO (iLIGO) to the advanced LIGO (aLIGO) phase of the project. Virgo is currently undergoing updates, and KAGRA is the baby of the group. I’m not even sure if construction is finished, but we have great expectations for the subterranean cryogenic behemoth. GEO is falling behind the group in terms of direct science output, but it has an incredibly good duty cycle (it’s always listening), so it’s useful as an old faithful option.

So undoubtedly, with all of this activity, and with the centenary of Einstein’s predictions of gravitational waves this year, there is a buzz in the air about the field.

So, why am I not in Glasgow? There is a time and a place for everything. If now is the time for gravitational wave research, then the place is surely at one of the observatories. So I filled out 500 forms and then I filled 500 more. I applied to Caltech to be a visiting student, I applied to the US consulate for a visiting researcher visa, and I applied to my funding body (THANKS STFC, NSF!!!) for more money, and I applied my knowledge of travelling in order to jump the pond and come across to the US-of-A. I am currently writing from my apartment in Richland, WA, just a few miles from the site of LHO. Let me set the scene:


Source: Fig. 2

A ways back, some people thought that the desert was a sensible place to live. They were mostly wrong. Some of them weren’t wrong, and they settled near a river. Or, 3 rivers, really, the Snake river, the Colombia river and the Yakima river. They called that settlement something, probably. I call it Richland. The good things about living in the desert are that there is very little rain, and that nobody else wants to live around you. So some very smart people capitalised on the abundance of land and built the Hanford site – a nuclear processing site, where barrels full of thick sloshing bubbling paste is stowed underground for millennia. As if the desert wasn’t a big enough incentive, the constant thought of mutant babies and cancer meant that there was even more land going spare around the Hanford site. So more clever people decided to build LIGO there. What is LIGO? I’ll get to that at a later date.

I’m going to be keeping a map of the places I mention in the blog. Let’s see how fancy, smart and integrated we can make it!


So with that, the scene is set. I am here in Richland for the next 118 days, and I will endeavour to keep this blog updated. I hope you stick with me!

[Science mode: not set]