Gravitational Waves Detected 100 Years After Einstein’s Prediction
LIGO opens new window on the universe with observation of gravitational waves from colliding black holes. Seven Texas Tech researchers were involved in the collaborative discovery.
Two Black Holes Merge into One
For the first time, scientists have observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves, arriving at the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. This confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.
Gravitational waves carry information about their dramatic origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. Physicists have concluded the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.
Gravitational Waves, As Einstein Predicted
The gravitational waves were detected on September 14, 2015 at 5:51 a.m. EDT by both of the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. The LIGO Observatories are funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), and were conceived, built, and are operated by Caltech and MIT. The discovery, accepted for publication in the journal Physical Review Letters, was made by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes the GEO Collaboration and the Australian Consortium for Interferometric Gravitational Astronomy, and the Virgo Collaboration using data from the two LIGO detectors.
Seven Texas Tech University researchers are members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration: professor Benjamin Owen, assistant professor Alessandra Corsi, postdoctoral researchers Santiago Caride, Robert Coyne, Ra Inta and Nipuni Palliyaguru, all in the Department of Physics; and undergraduate Department of Mechanical Engineering major Chance Norris.
February 11, 2016
By: Glenys Young
Meet The Sri Lankan Scientist Who Helped Detect Gravitational Waves
The scientific community and the world at large was taken by storm last week when an international team of scientists managed to detect gravitational waves, finally confirming renowned physicist Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of General Relativity and opening up a brand new vista of the cosmos. This team, known as the the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, contains some of the brightest minds on the planet, and one of them just so happens to be Sri Lankan. Roar caught up with LIGO member, astronomer, and postdoctoral researcher at the Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, Dr. Nipuni Palliyaguru for a quick chat on her contribution to this monumental discovery.
Dr. Nipuni Palliyaguru is part of the LIGO electromagnetic follow up team.
Having joined LIGO as part of her postdoctoral research, about six months ago, Dr. Palliyaguru became involved in a collaborative effort to pinpoint the elusive signal whose existence Einstein had predicted in 1905. “It is a collaboration that consists of many scientists from around the world who are working on different aspects of gravitational wave signals. I am part of the electromagnetic follow-up team of LIGO,” she said.
As to how it works is, in her own words, “the idea is, when a signal comes in, we send out alerts to partner telescope facilities all around the world. Usually, LIGO can’t pinpoint the exact location of the astrophysical system in the sky, because there are thousands of galaxies within the region. So it is important to do an electromagnetic follow-up in order to find out where the signal is coming from, and also to extract additional information about the gravitational wave sources.”
According to Dr. Palliyaguru, team members take turns to be on-call, as these events tend to be unpredictable and can occur anytime of the day. Special care is taken to ensure the validity of a detection, which means there can be no room for false alarm.
“You have to carefully check for instrument status and for glitches in the data to make sure an event is real. Then we decide whether or not to alert the partner astronomers. It is a lot of fun to be on shift, especially when a trigger comes in. Then, because I’m also an astronomer, I got to do the actual follow-up observations for this event,” she said.
A lot has been said about LIGO’s detection and its significance, but as is often the case with popular science (pop-sci), there seems to be a lot of miscommunication surrounding the discovery. For example, a Sri Lankan TV news segment described it as a confirmation of the wave-like property of gravity, in a strictly Newtonian sense of the concept. As a real scientist who was actually part of the project, Dr. Palliyaguru helped shed some light on this.
Gravitational waves: ripples in the spacetime fabric. Image Credit: extremetech.com
“Sometimes you have to use analogies to make the information more accessible. We say gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime, kind of like ripples in a pond. Gravitational waves basically distort the space so the time that light takes to travel between two points in space changes. This is the basic principle of any gravitational wave detector. They are called waves because they actually follow the usual wave equation in physics,” she said.
Going into further detail, Dr. Palliyaguru explained that light, as we know it, or more specifically electromagnetic radiation, is generated from accelerating charges (such as electrons). Gravitational radiation is generated from accelerating masses.
“Even my waving hand can produce gravitational waves, but they are very very weak. To get detectable levels of gravitational waves, you need huge masses and for that you have to turn to the sky.”
When she was reading for her PhD at West Virginia University, USA, Dr. Palliyaguru heard what she called a very inspirational talk about efforts to detect gravitational waves using pulsar timing arrays (PTAs). It was then that it hit her: She was in this for life.
“Ever since then, I knew this was what I wanted to work on, for the rest of my career. So I worked on PTAs for about five years for my PhD. Then I got the offer to work with the Texas Tech group as a postdoc on LIGO science. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to continue gravitational wave science with a sophisticated detector,” she said.
It’s not a stretch to say that, even in the 21st century, being a female scientist is not without its drawbacks. Sexism in the STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) fields has been well documented. According to Dr. Palliyaguru, however, things seem to be changing for the better.
“I think women have to work a lot harder to prove themselves. STEM fields require a lot of hard work and sacrifice, which is why women are discouraged from advancing in these careers. But I think this is changing. People are a lot more aware of the situation and I’m fortunate to know many male colleagues who are very supportive and that makes a huge difference,” she said.
A product of the Sri Lankan education system, Dr. Palliyaguru spoke about her days as a student in the island.
“Before any of this, I was a physics major at the University of Colombo and a student at CMS Ladies College in Colombo even before that. So yes, I did go through the local system and had very inspiring physics teachers from a very early stage,” she recalled.
The implications of LIGO’s work are many and will continue to have a profound impact on our understanding of the universe. Needless to say, it is every science student’s dream to be even a small part of something so groundbreaking. Dr. Palliyaguru has some great advice for anyone looking to make that dream a reality:
“I’m still in the early stages of my scientific career, so I’m not sure if I can say a whole lot, but I think perseverance and grit is what it takes. Also, not letting opportunities go to waste. When bad things happen, you cry for a day, and the next day you wake up and pick up from where you left off,” she said.
Asha De Vos
Massive honour to be selected as one of the GOOD 100 for 2016!!!!!
I’m posting here because I am proud to be able to fly the Ladies’ College flag HIGH!! #LadiesAreLeaders #GoNixon #ProudToBeAnLCite
In their own words “Each year, GOOD celebrates 100 people from around the globe who are improving our world in creative and innovative ways”; people who don’t accept the status quo. The line up is amazing and you can check out 10 of the 100 profiles (including mine) by clicking here https://www.good.is/features/issue-36-good-100-preview. Thank you to you all for supporting me and encouraging me – you give me the courage and resolve to keep on going on! If you live in the US look out for the March issue of GOOD mag. I will stare pensively out of the pages at you smile emoticon Everyone else, stay tuned as GOOD rolls out the entire list this month.
Photo credit: Zack Pianko
15 mar 2016
Today was the 116th birthday of the most important institution I have ever belonged to – my Alma Mater Ladies’ College. LC was more than just a school…it moulded me into who I am, it taught me what it meant to belong, it gave me friends who have become family, it encouraged me to become an all rounder, it helped me become confident enough to wander off the beaten path, it filled me with precious memories that I share with some of the most wonderful women I have and ever will meet and most importantly it never expected anything in return. Thank you to our founder’s for their vision and foresight and thank you to all the Ladies of Ladies’ College for flying the flag high and making me so proud to be one of you!
Who am I?
I am a Sri Lankan marine biologist, ocean educator and pioneer of blue whale research within the Northern Indian Ocean. My journey started when I was just six years old and I have never looked back. Of course, I have encountered many challenges along the way, but I never gave up on my dreams and over time, I have learnt how to turn negatives into positives and how to make them work for me rather than against me. If I had to live my life over, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Because of the lack of Marine Biology degree programs in my island home (ironically! to hear more about this listen to my TEDxMonterey talk or my TEDxVictoria talk), did my BSc (Hons) in Marine and Environmental Biology at the University of St. Andrews, UK, my MSc in Integrative Biosciences at the University of Oxford, UK and my PhD at the University of Western Australia. Throughout these adventures, I kept going back and working in Sri Lanka, eventually setting up The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project in 2008 (although, I first started writing proposals and working on research ideas back in 2002 after an encounter with some whale poop ~ true story!). Before I started my PhD I was a full blown marine biologist – I was curious about animal behavior.
After I met The Unorthodox Whales, I realized that in order to understand their behavior, I had to understand how the environment influenced them, so I decided to do my PhD in an oceanography lab. Definite steep learning curve but so very valuable. At the end of it all, I was able to publish some interesting research that straddles both the physical and biological sides of my interest that also brought me closer to my ultimate question – what influences blue whales to aggregate off southern Sri Lanka throughout the year, particularly given that it is a high-risk area thanks to the ship traffic that passes through. The other exciting outcome of my PhD is that it makes me the first (and only!) Sri Lankan to have a PhD in marine mammal related research! WOO HOO! But most importantly I hope it shows other Sri Lankans and people from my part of the world that ANYTHING is possible as long as you dream BIG!
Dr. Asha de Vos is a Sri Lankan marine biologist and educator with a BSc (Hons) in Marine and Environmental Biology from the University of St. Andrews, UK, a MSc in Integrative Biosciences from the University of Oxford, UK and a PhD from the University of Western Australia. Her PhD focused on the ‘Factors influencing blue whale distribution off southern Sri Lanka’ specifically as this area overlaps with one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. This represents a part of the research she has been conducting on this population since 2008.
Her project ‘The Sri Lankan Blue Whale Project’ forms the first long term study on blue whales within the Northern Indian Ocean. She has published several key research publications on Sri Lankan blue whales, which have led to this population being designated as a species in urgent need of conservation research by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
The IWC has since invited key Sri Lankan government personnel to participate in whale ship-strike related meetings to gain a broader understanding of the problem. Asha is also an invited member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Cetacean Specialist Group. Her efforts to bring attention to the unusual Sri Lankan blue whales and the threats they face have been showcased internationally by Channel 7 Australia (2010), the BBC (2010), the New York Times (2012), CNN (2012), WIRED UK (2014), the New Scientist (2014) and TED (2015). She is also a guest blogger for National Geographic.
Asha is a TED Senior Fellow, a Duke University Global Fellow in Marine Conservation and was recently selected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. She is currently a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California Santa Cruz, where she is working specifically on reducing the problem of ship-strike of blue whales in Sri Lankan waters.
She coined the term ‘the Unorthodox Whale’ based on many years of research on the blue whales around Sri Lankan waters and a realisation that they were simply – different.
visit – ashadevos.com
The Firsts of the last century
Over the last hundred years our “Old Girls’ have been at the fore front; women who changed the world as we know it by breaking boundaries in fields of government, academia, and every sphere of professional, social, economic and political life.
Pioneers in their respective fields, each of these women dared to be first – challenging convention and stepping outside of their expected roles to create new opportunities for future generations of women while epitomising integrity, efficiency, commitment, and true leadership with charm and charisma.
- The first woman chairperson of a Government Corporation – Glaydys Fernando (Jayawardene)
- The first woman director of the Department Census and Statistics – Imogen Kumarasinghe (Kannangara)
- The first woman Commissioner of Inland Revenue – Nirmalee Kadiragamathamby (Ramachandran),
- The first Sri Lankan woman to hold office as an international civil servant – Pramila Kanangara – Senanayake, Assistant Director of the Planned Parenthood Federation,
- The first woman Government Analyst – Yogaranee Naderaser (Mahesan).
- The first woman engineer – Pramila Sivapakasapillai,
- The first woman Vice Chancellor of a Sri Lankan University – Savitri Ellepola (Goonesekere)
- The first woman Secretary to head a Government Ministry – Dhara Wijesinha (Wijetileke)
And many more…