UMass Dartmouth Physicist Gaurav Khanna was more excited than most when Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne won the Nobel Prize in Physics this week. That is because Dr. Khanna and his UMass Dartmouth team were among the many contributors to the LIGO/VIRGO Collaboration led by the three new Nobel Laureates.
On 14 September 2015, the universe's gravitational waves were observed for the very first time by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago, resulted from a collision between two black holes. It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive at the LIGO detectors in Louisiana and Washington.
The LIGO project is a collaboration of over 1,000 researchers from more than 20 countries. The UMass Dartmouth Physics Department has had a long relationship with the LIGO project extending over a decade. Physics majors have done summer internships at the Louisiana laboratory, and others have officially joined the LIGO collaboration later in their careers.
“I watched the big announcement with my wife via live stream directly from Sweden early in the morning,” said Dr. Khanna. “It was extremely exciting and LIGO is just getting started. A new era of astronomical observation has just begun. I wouldn’t be surprised if LIGO and other international observatories make a major new discovery every year for many years to come.”
Dr. Thorne, upon learning that he had won the Nobel Prize, noted the power of scientific collaborations. “We live in an era where some huge discoveries are really the result of giant collaborations, with major contributions coming from very large numbers of people,” he said. Listen to the full interview.
Thorne visited the university in 2016 to discuss his work and Dr. Khanna recently presented a seminar on this groundbreaking discovery.
The signal from the waves was extremely weak when it reached Earth, but is already promising a revolution in astrophysics, offering an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of human knowledge. Since the original detection in 2015, three additional signals have been detected successfully from different black hole systems.
Dr. Khanna works on improving the computational models of binary black hole systems that are one of strongest sources of these waves in nature. Accurate models of black hole collisions are critical for LIGO’s success, because simulated results are used to search for the real signals emitted by the astrophysical sources.
Prof. Khanna has worked on the background science associated to LIGO (black holes and gravitational waves) for two decades. Much of Dr. Khanna’s National Science Foundation grant funding supports the advancement of the science behind the project.
UMass Dartmouth recently hired another gravitational physicist, Scott Field, who is a member of the LIGO collaboration. Dr. Field, an Assistant Professor in the Mathematics Department, has expertise in large-scale scientific computation with applications to general relativity and astrophysics. Professors Khanna and Field are both affiliated with the inter-disciplinary UMass Dartmouth Scientific Computing and Visualization Research.