Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scientists Changing the World

A gravitational wave (by David)

This is the Breakthrough Prize medal. Andy says it looks very much like David's drawings of gravitational waves. I attach some pictures of both. I leave you -- dear readers -- to judge.

David is a bit older now, but just as interested in science. Today he used solar power to separate the Hydrogen and Oxygen from water through electrolysis. He kept repeating the experiment until he collected some of the gas bubbles in a syringe. Then he tried blowing them up. He is fascinated by blowing things up. But unlike the US president, he is 10 and he only blows up bubbles, and so we are safe near David for now. 

When gravitational waves were discovered, David (still 8 years old at the time) and Edward (5 years old) were so excited that they insisted in writing a book for children on the subject. The children, Mihai and I worked on the book for weeks. They made all the drawings for it, and it ended up being a collection of dancing black holes, dancing children and happy fruits. See side-bar for the amazon link.
Colliding black holes (by David)

Andy was the second person to see the first gravitational wave that was detected, and when he realized it was real he tried his best to help lead the collaboration through the right steps in checking the data and the physics inferred. The wave arrived in his first day at work as Detector Characterization Chair. The detector was not even considered in science mode. As Andy put it in the first seminar in Switzerland on the subject: "the detector was ready, but the people were not" (I organized the seminar in Zurich).  The almost-perfect match to numerical relativity data was a surprise to all concerned.

In 2016 David wrote about gravitational waves in his school diary. At the end of the school year, Andy took pictures of David's writings and when the medal arrived, he gave the medal and the pin that came with it to the children. Andy explained that they deserved it because they asked many relevant questions on the topic and because they worked hard to increase the outreach of the science.

Edward, Andy and David in Tenerife
The money from the prize was used to partially fund a trip to Tenerife (the biggest Canary Island) and to build a fence in the back yard that keeps the children and the dog safe*. 

I still sometimes wonder if the science we do has value. I worry that we end up working on very specific topics that reach a very small community. This medal helps me realize that what we do (sometimes) matters. The whole world stopped to listed to the waves in the fabric of space-time. This was a year and two months ago.
Louisiana 2002

Mihai and Mario near LIGO 
with gravitational waves posters (I wear red)
My interest in gravitational waves started in college. In my first year of graduate school, Mihai and I were visiting LSU (Louisiana State University) to organize its first course on gravitational waves. It was the winter of 2003. This course was requested by students working within LIGO who wanted to understand its science better. We used Kip Thorne's web-based lectures and homework, which Mihai had convinced Kip to make to "benefit the whole world not just Caltech" (they are available on youtube today). He and Yanbei Chen were co-authors of the lecture series. One of the LIGO detectors is in Louisiana within driving distance of LSU. We saw the mirrors locking and the detector stable and in science mode. I remember discussing how imminent a detection was. We had students coming to learn more about the waves during Christmas and New Year's Eve. Everyone was just so excited, but then not much happened besides work for a long, long time.

Dave, me and Andy
In 2007, Andy, David Tsang, Mihai and I finished our first paper that modified the design of Advanced LIGO's mirrors to lower its dominant form of noise where it was most sensitive. Advanced LIGO still has to reach the sensitivity we were aiming to improve. After we finished our paper, a rainbow appeared. So, Dave, Andy and I climbed on top of the Space Sciences Building where our office was. A colleague took a picture. None of us jumped. This was our last year of graduate school. I was wearing color coordinated clothes and I was still combing my hair. That same year Andy and I applied for jobs. He received a position at Syracuse University, while I went to Penn State. There he spent a lot of time understanding how LIGO worked, and then when Edward was born, he moved to Penn State to be with us. At Penn State, he mapped a 3D space to 2D to allow LIGO to finally search for spinning black holes. Together with colleagues, he wrote the spinning template bank, which is now used by LIGO.

Gravitational waves were detected in our life-time - some 13 years later after I first visited the detector. Experiments often progress more slowly than people's lives. From 'our 2003 students', Ravi  Kopparapu is working at NASA searching for planets. His work on habitability is known world-wide. His wife who was pregnant at the time is still at his side. They have two amazing children. I have not kept in touch with the others. While most have quit the field, each must have a full life of their own.  Ray Wise began thinking about gravitational waves tens of years before us and so I have little cause of complaint, but I still feel I have witnessed part of history.

* Additional funds were needed to finish both projects. Tenerife was cold, but that's because we chose to go there in February - a year after the discovery of the waves was announced. A neighbor threatened to sue us over the fence because it's not straight enough. I wrote him about the medal. No court case has been opened to date. The medal is made of metal, and could be used to bang somebody on the head if the need arises, but then I would be sued for bodily harm. I point out I have no history of aggression.

Hristos a inviat! Happy Easter!

me and James
Edward w. baby Silkie
It's Easter and throughout the house children, a Silky chicken, a cat, tortoises, baby chicks and Terrapins are all moving about.  We wish you all dear readers a very happy Easter and a lovely spring and summer after that. Hristos a inviat! 

You might be wondering how has my family increased. It's a multi-part story. My friends assume I have a very quiet life. But at any given time, a person or animal needs something. It's much fuller than life in the office. It involves making people and animals happy or unhappy --  at times. They keep me very busy, but also play a role in keeping me sane while being on unpaid leave and with my father to take care of. My mother does more than I could ever repay. She has always been the one to help us most. 

Each member of our menagerie has a story of its own. 

Negruzi & The other girls
Why do we have Silky? We have been writing and illustrating a book about chickens and dinosaurs when we came across a furry looking chicken. The children wanted one just like that to inspire their drawings for our book. I made a phone call and ordered a Silky chicken and some Silky eggs.

Silky arrived by post. We received a frantic call from post-office personnel asking us to pick up the hen. My mom went to the post office and asked where's the chicken. People were mesmerized by the question. It seems few chose mail as their form of chicken-delivery. It took some time to locate Silky, but they both arrived home safely.

Silky is fluffy like a baby chick, gets very wet when it rains and cannot fly. The Silkies come from Asia. They have long been part of history: Marco Polo wrote about the 'furry chicken' in his 13th century travels. They are more friendly than other chicken. Every evening Silkie climbs on my feet, on my mom's feet or Andy's. That means she is ready for bed. She sleeps on the table in the living room in a box because it's still quite cold outside.

What about the other hens? Most of our other hens were rescued from a factory farm. They were acquired on the way from school when we saw a person toss hens out of his car like sacks of potatoes. The children asked him how much they cost, and we simply had to buy some. We have three chicken that are not rescues. One is a present from a family friend, and two chicken were my reward last year for paying for a genetic test. I had a friend who was pregnant and was told her baby is likely to have Down syndrome. The child is healthy and it made her pregnancy more relaxed to know that ahead of time.

the baby chicks
with Spike
The baby chicks.  We have lots of eggs, and so we also had to get an incubator. We now have 24 baby chicks. Not all have names. Spike jumps out of the box first thing in the morning. Star was the first to come out of his egg. The David-chick's shell was opened by David a day early. He did not look quite done and so we put him back in the incubator for another day in a plastic foil. He is in good shape now, but David worries he is a hen and so the naming scheme might have to be changed in the future. Then there are the six silky chicks. They are white, black, and wild-piglet like.

The tortoises (Kiki and Piki) and Terrapins (Otto and Fifi) were the children's reward for finishing their first two books and becoming published authors.
Rainbow -- the cat

The cat just showed up. She wears a bell and a collar of the same color as her eyes. She is very friendly, and also appears to be heavily pregnant. Her black and white coloring is similar to that of Coditza, our dog. Perhaps she thought that they belonged together. He receives meat to eat, and so does the cat now. They both refuse the appropriate pet food. Andy calls her "Rainbow" because white light has the full spectrum of colored light in it, and black just absorbs everything.  Rainbow must belong to a neighbor - although the ones I have asked do not know her. She caught a rat today, and ate it in front of us. Part of its skull and tail is still in the yard. The ants are eating what remained. I worry about Rainbow's safety now. What if the rats are poisoned?

Easter eggs
Edward, David and Andy painted eggs with water-colors this year. There is the Robot egg, the Jupiter egg and a few of more standard coloring. The Jupiter egg is the favorite - although it's not the toughest of all. I will soon have a post about my technical paper on Jupiter. It should be submitted this week, and once it's accepted I will write about it. In the meantime -- below is Jupiter the egg.

Jupiter -- the egg
Finishing this post late reminds me of my religion teacher from middle school who used "Hristos a inviat" instead of hello many months after Easter. He had white hair and seemed so very old to me (he was likely in his late 40s or early 50s). I remember it was summer. School was long over when I met him on the street. He started the conversation with "Hristos a inviat", and then explained that everyone should be rejoicing not just during Easter, but for much longer. 

When I walk past the Timis river and see all the lambs brought for slaughter to celebrate Easter, I cringe. My mother reminds me that fewer people go hungry now than when she was young, and that this is because of industry and agriculture -- it's now possible to feed everyone. I suppose it's fair to see a tiny piece of the price paid from time to time. The killing of lambs does not happen in the open in the US or the fancier parts of Europe. But it's interesting to watch how we can so easily turn off compassion. When seeing the lambs, I think of the various countries in the world where there is war and wonder if there will ever be a time when we'll be truly kind and grateful for what we have -- perhaps when there will be less left to destroy.