By the time it reached Earth, the chirp was far too weak to be detected by humans. But the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors heard it—first in Livingston, Louisiana, then seven milliseconds later in Hanford, Washington. For the first time, a century after Albert Einstein proposed his general theory of relativity, gravitational waves had been detected.
Researchers from MIT and CalTech, which jointly operate LIGO, announced their findings to the world on February 11, 2016. The breakthrough ushers in a new era of astrophysics. And for many members of the LIGO team it confirms an idea at the center of their life’s work. In the weeks since the news broke, LIGO team members reflected on the discovery.
Nergis Mavalvala PhD ’97, the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics and associate department head of physics, began working on gravitational wave detection in the 1990s as a graduate student at MIT.
“For the first time, we’ve been able to listen to the sounds that the universe has been transmitting to us from the beginning of time. By now being able to detect gravitational waves and light from the same systems, we can get a much better, complete picture of the universe.”
David Shoemaker SM ’80, MIT LIGO laboratory director and senior research scientist at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, briefed members of Congress on LIGO’s significance.
“[LIGO] will allow us to work with other observatories using established technologies, such as radio, optical, and x-ray telescopes and satellites, to combine data from gravitational waves and traditional instruments. In this way we can test theories about fundamental components of the cosmos, such as neutron star matter and supernovae. We certainly also expect many surprises will be discovered and explained as we develop this new branch of astronomy.”
In the 1960s, Rainer Weiss ’55, PhD ’62, MIT professor emeritus of physics, conceived of the idea for LIGO as part of a teaching exercise, and spent decades moving the project forward.
“I feel an enormous sense of relief and some joy, but mostly relief. There’s a monkey that’s been sitting on my shoulder for 40 years, and he’s been nattering in my ear and saying, ‘Ehhh, how do you know this is really going to work? You’ve gotten a whole bunch of people involved. Suppose it never works right?’ And suddenly, he’s jumped off.”
Sources, from top: Boston Globe; House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology; MIT News Office