The SXS (Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes) Project
Catching The Wave:
Physicist/actor confirms Einstein was right
By Leslie Linthicum
It happened just before 6 a.m., East Coast time, on Sept. 14, 2015. Both of the U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors, one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La., detected two black holes colliding a billion light years away.
It took cautious scientists until February to share the news with the world and explain its stunning implications. The observatories, each called LIGO, had finally recorded proof of Albert Einstein’s century-old theory of general relativity.
Robert Ward (’00 BS), an Albuquerque native and UNM alumnus, had kept the secret under wraps for five months. A member of the Advanced LIGO team since 2003, he helped design, construct and test some of the precision instrumentation on the wave detectors.
Ward calls the LIGO concept “ambitious and audacious,” a huge machine that pushes the limits of technology to monitor the universe for movement billions of light years away, converts that energy into volts and ultimately records it as a little squiggle on a computer screen.
“A large part of my contribution has been in getting the machine working,” says Ward, 38. “It’s really been my entire career so far.”
So imagine Ward’s emotions when he started to see a flurry of emails last September that said LIGO had found what it was looking for.
“Exciting, very exciting,” Ward says. “It was amazing. Every scientist has small breakthroughs throughout a career. This is a big one.”
It is a big one, one most likely to win the Nobel Prize for physics. Ward was part of an enormous team—more than 1,000 scientists—who worked on LIGO and Nobel prizes are much more often given to individuals than to teams. But he has the satisfaction of knowing that he was part of one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the last century, one that opens the door to probing the farthest reaches of the universe.
And the September detection wasn’t a fluke. In June, LIGO announced the detection of another collision in December.
Ward's career could have just as easily found him in the credits of “The Martian” or “The Big Bang Theory.”
He spent his four years at UNM trying not to worry about a future career. He enrolled at UNM thinking he might study math and economics, but in his second semester he took a physics course and found it “exciting and interesting and fun.” Although he declared a physics major, he graduated one class short of fulfilling the requirements for three different minors—theater, English literature and computer science.
“I was all over the place,” Ward recalls. “I loved reading. I always thought the theater kids were interesting.” While at UNM he performed in productions of “Twilight Los Angeles 1992,” “The Hyacinth Macaw” and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” while studying the motion of matter through space and time.
“I was the only physics major in theater rehearsals and the only actor in the physics lab,” Ward says.
Physics won out. He received his B.S. in physics in 2000 and went to Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. He received a master’s in computer science and also got to perform theater there.
Ward moved on to the California Institute of Technology for a Ph.D., intending to work in quantum computing, but gravitated to the gravitational waves detection project. His explanation of the project—for non-physics majors—is that “it’s kind of the story of gravity.”
You can’t see or feel gravity, but every time you drop something, you know it’s there. Einstein theorized that gravity was the result of space-time (the four-dimensional fabric of the universe) reacting to the presence of massive objects in space. Many scientists have used the image of bowling balls and a trampoline to explain how it works: If you put a bowling ball on a trampoline, it will stretch the trampoline fabric. Put another ball on the trampoline and it will roll toward the first ball. It’s not because the first ball is pulling it, but because of the curvature that has been created.
Another of Einstein’s theories, Ward explains, was that concentrations of matter pulled together by gravity could become so tightly packed that light cannot escape—the theory of what we now call “black holes.”
“We don’t actually know what black holes are,” Ward says. Since black holes don’t emit light, they can’t be seen.
The job of the LIGO machines was to act as giant eardrums, continually monitoring the relatively close space of a billion light years away for movement—gravitational waves.
Ward left Caltech and continued work on the project at the Astroparticle and Cosmology Laboratory in Paris and then moved to the Centre for Gravitational Physics at the Australian National University, where he is a research fellow.
While he also is working on developing methods to track and mitigate space debris, much of Ward’s recent work has concentrated on the upgrade to the original LIGO. The second-generation Advanced LIGO had just been put into commission a day before the Sept. 14 detection.
That’s why the first news of the detection was met with skepticism before repeated tests confirmed it was real.
With the discovery, Ward says, scientists can now “see” the universe more clearly and understand it better. How do black holes form? How are stars born and how do they die?
“There must be things we haven’t even imagined,” he says.
In that spirit, Ward and his colleagues didn’t spend too much time celebrating.
“We went out for drinks,” he says. “Then we said, ‘Let’s get back to work.’”