In the wake of the ground-breaking discovery of gravity waves last week, students, professors, and researchers at Harvard have been preparing to work in a field that is now drastically changed.
After the announcement of the discovery, a team of researchers in Harvard’s Astronomy Department has since published a report detailing a follow-up experiment they conducted using a telescope located in Chile.
Edo Berger, a professor of Astronomy and the head of the research team, said his interest “has to do with finding counterparts to the gravitational wave sources using traditional telescopes.”
According to Berger, when events that cause gravity waves occur, counterparts to gravity waves—which can manifest in anything from electromagnetic waves to radiation—may also take place. Berger said detecting these counterpart emissions would expand the understanding of the origin of these releases.
“We can gain from this a much more precise understanding of when the event actually happened, so we can tell specifically which galaxy it came from and where inside the galaxy it happened,” Berger said. “Traditional wave data gives us some details about distance, but not as much.”
In this instance, gravity waves were emitted from the collision of a binary system of black holes. Einstein hypothesized that these waves were ripples in the very fabric of space-time.
Michael W. Coughlin—another member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory discovery team that uncovered the gravity waves—said experiments to detect gravitational waves were conducted with telescopes aimed in the general direction that seemed promising for detecting such waves, as deemed by the team.
Philip S. Cowperthwaite, a graduate student and member of Berger’s team, said this method is a “very big observational challenge because the region that LIGO tells us this source is coming from is very large.”
Narrowing down this region might come down to engineering a more precise telescope, Berger said, but the discovery of gravity waves is nonetheless a major breakthrough in available methods of research.
“For us as astronomers, it's really fascinating because we’ve been using essentially the same techniques to study the universe for the past 100 years,” Berger said. “This is essentially a whole new way to study the universe that became available to us a week ago.”
Students at the College are equally as fascinated with the discovery. Coughlin, who is also a teaching fellow for PS12A: “Mechanics from an Analytical, Numerical and Experimental Perspective” said at least 10 students have approached him to discuss the study since it was publicized last week. Other students at the College interested in physics have been following the news as well.
“It’s always a great experience to have something like a big discovery happen in your lifetime, and we’ve had it twice with the Higgs Boson discovery and now the gravity waves,” Quentin E. Neroes ’19 said.
Coughlin said he believed this discovery could have ramifications for Harvard’s relationship with LIGO. Currently, Harvard is not an official member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration group that includes over 80 partner universities. Coughlin said he believed it is unlikely that Harvard will seek affiliation with LIGO, but that there is a possibility the discovery might encourage Harvard’s Astronomy Department to employ LIGO-affiliated postdoctoral fellows to pursue further research on the topic.“I would be very very hesitant to say that we are even close to done in that respect because of its implications for both fundamental physics and the general relativity sense, as well as on the astronomy side, sort of opening up a new window into the universe,” Coughlin said. “It is quite a big deal, and so the magnitude of the discovery is quite impressive.”
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