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Titan Scientists Seek Proof of Space-Time Curvature

Gravitational-Wave Center Seeks Confirmation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity

April 10, 2013

Faculty and student researchers in the new Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center are working on one of the most anticipated scientific discoveries of this century: the first-ever detection of gravitational waves.

"I'm a very curious person, and I believe that looking up to the sky to try to get answers on how the universe works is one amazing thing you can devote time and effort to," said physics graduate student Veronica Lockett-Ruiz. "When gravitational waves are detected, which I believe will be soon, we will confirm a theory that was proposed almost a century ago, and that is exciting!"

Joshua Smith, assistant professor of physics, directs the center, where faculty-student research is contributing to the global gravitational-wave research effort — and training the next generation of scientists.

The research is important because gravitational-wave detection — ripples of space-time curvature — and black holes would confirm Albert Einstein's 1916 General Theory of Relativity and open a new way of exploring the universe, Smith explained.

Smith and faculty members Geoffrey M. Lovelace and Jocelyn S. Read, assistant professors of physics, are involving students in their research, which will help fill the need for trained U.S. scientists. Students and faculty mentors have co-authored papers for publication and made conference presentations, while graduates are pursuing doctorates and careers in gravitational-wave science.

Lovelace uses supercomputer simulations to model and visualize sources of gravitational waves, such as colliding black holes or a black hole tearing apart a neutron star. Lovelace earned a doctorate in physics from the Caltech under Kip Thorne, one of the world's experts on gravitational waves.

Read, an astrophysicist with a physics doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, studies the astrophysics of neutron stars. She examines how matter behaves at extremely high densities inside neutron stars and how this might be measured from astronomical observations of gravitational waves.

Such projects are contributing to scientific research under way at two Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) facilities in the U.S. Smith and Read are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the global gravitational-wave research effort. Smith chairs its LIGO Detector Characterization Group, which is working to enable confident detections of gravitational waves; Read serves on the LIGO Academic Advisory Council and is an editor of LIGO Magazine.

Smith has secured, or has pending, about $1.5 million in external funding, including a $450,000 NSF Early CAREER award to advance his work to improve the sensitivity of LIGO detectors and increase the probability of gravitational wave detections by 2016.

"In all of human existence, people have been mystified by the skies. Nearly everything we've learned about astronomy, we've learned from light waves," said Smith. "What I'm most excited about is when LIGO makes its first gravitational wave detection, it will open up a new field of astronomy, where scientists use gravity to see astronomical objects like black holes, neutron stars and supernova explosions. What we'll learn will have long-term benefits to society that are impossible to predict."

More information is available on the Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center website.

By: Debra Cano Ramos, 657-278-4027

Tags:  Academics & ResearchTitan Pride