Finding Physics

From left are: Geoffrey Lovelace, Joshua Smith, Jocelyn Read and Alfonso Agnew.

For the Cal State Fullerton scientists, the wonder and mysteries of the universe captured their attention and imaginations early in life, yet each never imagined one day being a part of a cosmic discovery.

Joshua Smith grew up in northern New York’s Indian Lake, where he explored nature and gazed up at the stars in the Adirondack Park. In high school, Smith’s “amazing physics teacher” introduced him to the world of astronomy. “He got me interested in black holes and space-time,” he recalls.

As an undergraduate at Syracuse University, Smith knew he wanted to do “cool science.” He adds: “Who knew that 17 years later, I would be helping to make a significant astronomical discovery?” smiles Smith, who earned his doctorate in physics from Leibniz Universitat in Hannover, Germany.

Jocelyn Read had no inclination of becoming a scientist. She wanted to be a writer and pen science fiction novels. “I loved reading science fiction stories and learning about elaborate worlds, stars, solar systems and planets. These stories left me awestruck. As humans stuck on this planet, I realized there was so much we needed to understand about the universe.”

To be successful in creating those kinds of celestial stories, she decided to study mathematics and physics at the University of British Columbia, unknowingly setting herself on a path to become an astrophysicist. She earned her doctorate in physics from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and completed postdoctoral work at the Albert Einstein Institute in Germany.

“At first, I just wanted to learn more about the universe. Then I realized during my undergraduate research that I could contribute to science — and that was pretty inspiring,” recalls Read.

As a boy, Geoffrey Lovelace had a favorite Nintendo game that allowed him to “fly” around in space: “One day I fell into a black hole and thought it was the most mysterious thing: You could fall in and you can’t ever come back! From then on, I became very curious about black holes.”

Lovelace often tells that childhood story to his students. “They love hearing that the moral of the story is that video games are good for your career,” he laughs.

In high school in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, he read “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy” by Caltech’s Kip Thorne, a renowned theoretical physicist and one of the co-founders of LIGO. Afterward, he announced to his teacher that one day he would go to Caltech to study black holes. “The teacher told me, ‘We’ll see about that!’”

Lovelace earned his doctorate in physics at Caltech, where Thorne was his gravitational-wave research mentor.

Alfonso Agnew’s passion for physics and math was ignited by a high school teacher and a school book fair, where he picked up Einstein’s “Relativity: The Special and General Theory.”

“The successful detection of gravitational waves is an enormous event for anyone working in relativity. First of all, it was an actual physical phenomenon predicted by the theory as Einstein showed on paper 100 years ago,” says the CSUF alumnus, who earned a doctorate in mathematics from Oregon State University. “Its empirical verification is a major success for the theory and those who have spent their careers developing it. For many years, nobody knew if such a detection would ever really be possible.

“I look forward to a new era of testing Einstein’s theory as the leading model of space, time and gravity. The implications of being able to ‘see’ the universe with a completely new wave spectrum are mind-boggling. And in the fullness of time, I suspect that what gravitational-wave astronomy will reveal is a universe that not even science fiction could dream up.”