One of the first things I did as a grad student in 1982 was tour the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) prototype on the Caltech campus about a block from my dorm. It was housed in a utilitarian L-shaped building wrapped around the corner of another building. I toyed with the idea of working with Kip Thorne and Ron Drever on LIGO, perhaps making a career of it. I would be a small part of a large and long collaboration, but one that would probably make history. I chose a different path, but I never forgot LIGO, and I have closely followed its progress ever since. In 2007, I even co-advised Stephen Poprocki’s senior I.S. “Bayesian Source Direction Determination for Gravitational-Wave Bursts”, which was a small contribution to the LIGO effort.
Last Thursday morning, I was thrilled to sit with the Wooster physics department in a crowded Taylor 111 watching the LIGO team announce the first direct detection of gravitational waves. I got goosebumps reading the discovery paper in Physical Review Letters. However, during a later replay of the press conference, I heard Kip say Ron Drever was too ill to be there, but his family sent their best wishes. Sadly, the New York Times reports that Ron is in a nursing home in Scotland suffering from dementia, this historic discovery apparently too late for him to savor.
Gravitational waves are the analogue for gravity of what light is for electromagnetism but about 1040 times weaker. Over a billion years ago, two black holes spiraled together, merged, and rung down, radiating away the equivalent of about 3 solar masses of energy in a third of a second with more power than the luminosity of the entire observable universe. Last September 14th, gravity waves from the merger passed through Earth, stretching and expanding the 4-km long arms of the two LIGO interferometers, which were thousands of miles and several milliseconds apart, by a few thousandths of a proton’s width. The resulting chirps in strain were visible to the eye above the noisy backgrounds. History had been made, and a new era in astronomy had begun.