Tuesday 8 March 2016

Star Gayzing : Wave Goodbye to Theory

You may have heard or read the recent news reports about the detection of gravitational waves first theorised by Einstein in 1916. The discovery was made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) last September but was only made public four weeks ago. The discovery could not have been made without the ground-breaking work in the early days of LIGO by a lesbian physicist called Dr. Nergis Mavalvala. On this International Women’s Day we look at her work.

Back in 2013 one of me “Ology of the Month” articles was about those very gravitational waves and Nergis Mavalvala. What I find quite interesting is that the discovery was announced just three days before the 2nd anniversary of the date I published my article.

Let’s get to the point and see what gravity waves are and what LIGO does. Here’s a short video. In it Nergis and her colleagues explain briefly their discovery.

Here’s how Nergis became involved in LIGO. Nergis arrived at Wellesley College in Massachusetts from her native Pakistan in 1986. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1990 and went to study at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It was there that she met Dr. Rainer Weiss, the first scientist to suggest the idea of LIGO back in the 1970s. Nergis’s expertise was in designing and building interferometers, any instrument that uses the interference patterns in wavelengths to determine data and measurements.

Dr. Weiss took Nergis on as part of his team that had begun to work on the problem of detecting gravitational waves. Nergis’s research and thesis dealt specifically with the problem of creating authentically-obtained data from precisely-aligned sensors. Her research was essential in the construction of LIGO.

The figures and distances involved in detecting gravitational waves is staggering. The data has to detect distortions in space caused by a cataclysmic event so far away, as the above video mentions. Here’s the problem. Let’s make a hypothetical analogy. Imagine we had a LIGO built on Pluto. Its task would be to pick up the ripple in space created by a baby panda sneezing on the Earth when the planet is on its furthest point on the other of the Sun. That’s probably not the best analogy to make but it gives you an idea of the problem when you also consider that our hypothetical LIGO on Pluto would have to separate the ripples caused by the sneeze from those created by a tropical storm on Venus, a meteor crashing into Saturn, a volcano exploding on the one of the moons of Jupiter, and me dropping a spoon in my kitchen. All create waves in space but you’re only interested in the panda, and LIGO has to be sensitive enough to only pick up the panda sneezing.

That’s why it took nearly six months before the detection of the gravity waves was made public. Scientists had to be sure the data was right. There’s even a group of the team dedicated to creating fake waves.

When the discovery was made public Nergis Mavalvala was roped in as a panel member at the official presentation at MIT. As a consequence she soon found herself a national celebrity in her home country. Even Pakistan’s Prime Minister sent his congratulations to her and the LIGO team.

Whether the LIGO team will be nominated for a Nobel Prize or not, Dr. Nergis Mavalvala leads the way for female and openly lesbian physicists in a profession which is still predominantly male, straight and white.

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