Discovery Opens New Window to Universe, Prof Says

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Scientists have opened a “new window” on the workings of the universe all the way back to its early origins with the first-ever detection of gravitational waves announced by an international research team Thursday.

So says U of G adjunct physics professor Luis Lehner, whose models along with those of other theoreticians have helped make predictions about these waves, long believed to emanate through space from super-massive events in long-distant corners of the universe.

The Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) team announced yesterday that sophisticated detectors based in Washington and Louisiana picked up evidence of gravitational waves this past September.

“The whole thing was an adrenaline rush,” said Lehner, who has worked with members of that team. He joined U of G and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., in 2012. “Rumours have been swirling around for a long time.”

Gravitational waves vibrate from supersized events such as far-distant collisions involving black holes and neutron stars. Their existence was predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity but remained unproven until last year’s detection.

Lehner said scientists studying this phenomenon hope to learn more about everything from gamma ray bursts and the innards of neutron stars to what happened around the time of the Big Bang.

“With gravitational waves, we will have tremendously important information that we have never been able to get before,” he said.

Said physics professor Eric Poisson, who also studies gravitational waves but was not part of this week’s announcement: “I’m beside myself with excitement about this.”

So was emeritus professor Iain Campbell, whose PhD supervisor was LIGO co-founder Ronald Drever. While at the University of Glasgow, Campbell tutored undergraduate student Jim Hough, who became director of Glasgow’s LIGO Institute.

“Small world,” said Campbell of this week’s news confirming the existence of these universe-spanning ripples.