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.

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