You are here

Proving Einstein right – again

11 March 2016

A hundred year old theory proven right and a new window to the cosmos opened, all with a single chirp. Scientists recently announced the confirmed existence of gravitational waves using the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, USA. 

Since the announcement of this breakthrough discovery, the scientific community has been nothing short of excited. If the gravity (pardon the pun) of this situation is lost on you, consider this: gravitational waves  – massive waves of energy rippling through the fabric of spacetime  – have been waiting years to be detected. One hundred years, to be precise. They were first predicted by none other than Albert Einstein in his 1916 theory of General Relativity. 

Talk about timing. 

The discovery was the perfect topic to cap off TRIUMF’s Einstein Centenary-themed Saturday Morning Lecture Series. On March 5, 2016 in a packed room of eager science enthusiasts at Simon Fraser University (a TRIUMF member university), Hanford LIGO’s Lead Detection Scientist and former TRIUMF graduate student Dr. Michael Landry closed the season with a public talk on the observation of gravitational waves.

Don’t be disappointed if you weren’t there – Michael’s full lecture will soon be made available for viewing online. In the meantime, we followed up with Michael to talk next steps  for gravitational waves and what their discovery means for how we understand our Universe. 

TRIUMF: How does it feel to be a part of the team to confirm the existence of gravitational waves?

Michael Landry: It is immensely satisfying to see a strong, clean signature from a binary black hole merger in the data. The interferometers work, and Einstein was right, once again!  Remarkable. I've been working on LIGO for sixteen years, so it is a genuine relief to have a signal, but many in this 900-person collaboration have been toiling for longer. So, imagine if you spent four decades in the hunt for this phenomenon - the excitement would be beyond words.

How will the detection of gravitational waves impact our understanding of the universe?

ML: There are sectors of the universe that are simply not accessible to electromagnetic investigation.  A binary black hole system is a good example of something you can only analyze with gravitational wave detectors.  From systems like GW150914, we'll learn much about General Relativity in the strong, dynamical regime. Other sources such as binary neutron star mergers or spinning isolated neutron stars will tell us about the equation of state of nuclear matter. In time, other detectors such as space-based interferometers, pulsar timing arrays, or CMB polarization detectors will come online and tell us more and different things about the universe, such as details from the very early universe, details from the first fraction of a second after the big bang. Thus the physics and astrophysics payoff from detecting gravitational waves should be very good. We may of course get a surprise from some unexpected source, as well.

As a former graduate student at TRIUMF, how did it feel to come back and give a talk on such a monumental discovery?

ML: It was thrilling and satisfying to give this talk on LIGO results and to see friends and colleagues from TRIUMF and Manitoba in the process. It was also humbling - this work, after all, is that of two large collaborations (LIGO and Virgo), the combined effort of over a thousand people, building on what is surely another thousand before that.

What are the next steps for you and for the LIGO team?

ML: We're tuning our detectors between our first observation run (O1, which ended mid-January 2016) and our second run (O2, which should start roughly in August/September of 2016).  In this period we intend to double the laser power injected into the interferometers (from 24W to 50W), which impacts the noise at higher frequencies, and work on low-frequency noise as well. This should produce about a 30% increase in range for a given gravitational wave source, or about a factor of two in volume.  Equivalently this should double the rate of potential detections.  Additional detections is the key thing, to move from first detection of gravitational waves, to regular detections, and fully into the era of gravitational wave astronomy.

Remember to check back soon for the full video playback of Michael’s lecture, and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @TRIUMFLab for updates, stories, and information on upcoming events.

- Carla Rodrigo, Communications Assistant