Skip to Content (Press Enter)

Couple Commit to Astronomical Support for CSUF Gravitational-Wave Research

Gift Paves Way for Future Cosmic Discoveries
Share This:

Following the announcement of the first discovery of gravitational waves in early 2016, with Cal State Fullerton physicists and their students making key contributions, university donor Nicholas Begovich became fascinated with the cataclysmic event in the distant universe.

This unprecedented collision of two black holes to produce gravitational waves not only opened a new window on the cosmos, it brought together CSUF physicists Joshua Smith and Geoffrey Lovelace, and Begovich, a retired engineering executive.

A ferocious learner, Begovich wanted to know more about the global effort to detect gravitational waves  — ripples in the fabric of spacetime — using the advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, known as LIGO. This research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of more than 1,000 scientists from around the world and the United States — including from Cal State Fullerton.

Since then, the trio has spent time together to engage in science-focused conversations, with Smith and Lovelace sharing their knowledge with the 97-year-old Begovich, a former Hughes Aircraft executive with three degrees from Caltech, including a doctorate, and whose groundbreaking work led to advances in air defense systems. Begovich purchased and reviewed books on gravitational physics to bring himself up to speed on the quickly changing field and the computational challenges of computing black hole mergers.

Through this earnest friendship, Begovich, and his wife, Lee, a former first grade teacher — both longtime supporters of the university’s arts programs — turned their philanthropy to Cal State Fullerton’s groundbreaking gravitational-wave research. The Fullerton couple have committed a philanthropic gift to benefit CSUF’s Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center, dubbed “GWPAC.”

At an invitation-only dinner event Oct. 24 to acknowledge and celebrate the couple for their support, CSUF President Fram Virjee announced the renaming of the academic and research center to the “Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy.”

“Your commitment will no doubt bring dreams to fruition, allow us to further the research and to engage in the generational education of our students,” Virjee told the couple.

The center, which opened in 2012 in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, is a hub of scientific research and education that is preparing the next generation of students in this emerging field in astronomy to help build future observatories and make discoveries. 

“The Begoviches’ donation will greatly raise the capacity and output of the center for years to come and will further theoretical and experimental science at Cal State Fullerton in the search for gravitational waves,” said Smith, professor of physics and Dan Black Director of Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy.

“We are incredibly honored that Nick and Lee have chosen to invest in the future of gravitational-wave science at CSUF and we will ensure that our center continues to play a major role in advancing humanity’s exploration of the universe,” Smith added. “Their gift will have a transformative impact on students through research, teaching and outreach.”

At the event, the couple was presented with a commemorative plaque with an illustration of the first gravitational wave observation, including calculations by GWPAC students and faculty members. Guests, including science, math, engineering and arts faculty members and administrators, donors, and student and alumni researchers, gave the couple a standing ovation.

A humble Begovich told the intimate crowd that he doesn’t deserve the recognition, though he and his wife accept it with “great gratitude.” He paused and quietly shared: “I can’t tell you how happy I am about this. It completes my life.”

For the guests in the room, it was a poignant moment.

“Hearing Nick say those words, and getting to know someone so special, I can’t put into words,” said Lovelace, associate professor of physics, whose research focuses on using supercomputers to simulate sources of gravitational waves.

“We’ve built a center that played a role in the first discovery of gravitational waves. Nick’s gift is going to take us to a place where we can be on the ground floor of the future of gravitational waves in the United States.”

Jocelyn Read, associate professor of physics, who studies the astrophysics of neutron stars, also was touched by the couple’s generosity to advance their research: “He’s entrusted us with his legacy and we’ll work hard to live up to that trust by building upon the work of the center to become even more impactful in the coming decades.”

The event also featured presentations by the CSUF gravitational-wave researchers and Kip S. Thorne, a recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics and a theoretical physicist at Caltech. Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry C. Barish were awarded the top physics prize “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” Thorne also was Lovelace’s Ph.D. adviser at Caltech, where he earned a doctorate in physics.

Thorne, one of the world’s experts on gravitational waves and Einstein’s theory of relativity,   lauded the CSUF faculty and student researchers’ contributions to the international effort, as well as the university’s commitment to advancing science.

“I have not seen in any other institution in the world where undergraduates are brought in — in considerable numbers — to do world-class research,” Thorne said. “The level of work that is done at Cal State Fullerton is just incredible. It’s the best that I’ve seen at an undergraduate institution anywhere in the world.”