Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


A new window on the universe

UWM physicists involved in international project to scour space for gravitational waves

Using new tools to look at the universe, says Patrick Brady, often has led to discoveries that change the course of science. History is full of examples.

“Galileo was the first person to use the telescope to view the cosmos,” says Brady, a UWM professor of physics. “His observations with the new technology led to the discovery of moons orbiting Jupiter and lent support to the heliocentric model of the solar system.”

Just such an opportunity exists today with a unique observatory that is scanning the skies, searching for one of Einstein’s greatest predictions – gravitational waves.

Gravitational waves are produced when massive objects in space move violently. The waves carry the imprint of the events that cause them. Scientists already have indirect evidence that gravitational waves exist, but have not directly detected them.

UWM researchers, backed by considerable funding from the National Science Foundation, are taking a leadership role in the quest.

It is an epic undertaking involving about 500 scientists worldwide, including Brady and other members of UWM’s Center for Cosmology and Gravitation: associate professors Alan Wiseman and Jolien Creighton, and assistant professor Xavier Siemens.

Two UWM adjunct physicists, who work at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, also are involved – former UWM professor Bruce Allen and scientist Maria Alessandra Papa.

“It’s an unimaginable opportunity to be on the forefront of scientific discovery,” says Creighton.

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, consists of detectors at two U.S. sites managed by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

UWM’s physicists are analyzing the data generated by the LIGO facilities.

The project is supported with a sizable investment of grant money from both federal and UWM sources.

Last year, UWM’s LIGO group brought in $3 million in grant funding. Since 1999, UWM has received more than $9 million for the project, with much of it going toward a supercomputer called Nemo that operates unobtrusively on the second floor of the Physics Building.

Stretching and squeezing

The LIGO observatories use lasers to accurately monitor the distance between a central station and mirrors suspended three miles away along perpendicular arms. When a gravitational wave, a traveling ripple in space-time, passes by, the mirror in one arm will move closer to the central station, while the other mirror will move away.

The change in distance caused by stretching and squeezing is what LIGO is designed to measure, says Wiseman.

Those changes will be inconceivably tiny. LIGO can record distortions at a scale so small, it is comparable in distance to a thousandth of the size of an atomic nucleus.

LIGO records a series of numbers – lots of them – and feeds them to several supercomputer clusters around the country, including UWM’s Nemo cluster.

Think of a modern hard disk on a desktop computer, which stores about 100 gigabytes. LIGO fills up about 10 of those at Nemo in a single day, says Brady.

The computer’s job is to sort out the numerical patterns representing gravitational waves buried in ambient noise produced by lots of other vibrations – from internal vibrations of the equipment itself, to magnetic fluctuations from lightning storms, to seismic vibrations from trains rolling along the tracks a few miles from the observatory, or from earthquakes on the other side of the world.

“There are thousands or even millions of different signals that could be emitted from space,” says Wiseman. “So you have to take each segment of data individually. That turns out to be a formidable computational problem.”

Nemo performs many billions of calculations per second in its search for these signals.

Space sounds

The strings of numbers from LIGO are like tracks on a compact disk, says Brady. That means, once detected, gravitational-wave signals can be converted into sound.

In fact, scientists have already simulated, based on mathematical predictions, what certain events in space will sound like.

When two black holes are merging, for example, you might expect to hear a “chirp” that represents the spiraling together of the black holes just before they collide. “The spiral can go on for tens of thousands of years,” says Brady. “The sound is the identifying signal of the last few seconds of the process!”

Those analyzing the data from space could actually listen to the data. Instead, scientists look for the signals using computers like Nemo.

To augment the computing capacity, UWM is hosting a way for anyone with a computer and a high-speed Internet connection to join the astrophysical treasure hunt. Called “Einstein@Home, the program borrows computer power available when participants are not using it, and pool those resources to aid in filtering the massive amounts of data from LIGO.

Possible secrets

Scientists concede that the current LIGO facilities will need to be improved to increase the chances of detecting gravitational waves. More NSF funding to do that is requested in the 2009 U.S. budget currently winding its way through the approval process.

For now, the best hope is to detect events relatively close to Earth.

So what is the likelihood of success"

“The events we are looking for may only happen once every million years in our galaxy,” says Wiseman, “but if your instrument is sensitive enough to see such events in, say, one million galaxies, then the probability of detecting something is much larger.”

Gravitational waves may hold secrets to the nature of black holes, the unknown properties of nuclear material, and maybe even how the universe began.

“We’ve only been able to find out about the universe since it became cool,” says Siemens. “But with gravitational waves, we’ll see the universe when it was much younger – and hotter.”

But then again, scientists don’t really know.

“I think we’re in for a surprise,” says Siemens. “We have all these ideas about what we think we will find, but it could be something completely different.”

Patrick Brady | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves
24.10.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Struktur und Dynamik der Materie

nachricht Move over, lasers: Scientists can now create holograms from neutrons, too
21.10.2016 | National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>