UF played an important role in the work that led to this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.
Barry Barish, Rainer Weiss and Kip Thorne, along with several other scientists and researchers, were given the honor for observing gravitational waves and proving Albert Einstein’s prediction of their existence. In 2007, Barish received an honorary Doctorate of Science from UF, said UF spokesperson Steve Orlando.
UF assisted the research on gravitational waves in its LIGO lab, said Stephen Eikenberry, a UF professor of astronomy and physics who worked in the lab. UF has been involved with the project for nearly 20 years.
Aside from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which were the founding institutions of LIGO, UF played the largest role in the project, Eikenberry said.
“The beginning of the story goes back 100 years to Einstein,” Eikenberry said.
Einstein’s theory of general relativity challenged Newton’s theory and flipped the scientific community’s understanding of gravity upside down, he said.
Simon Barke, a UF researcher, works mainly with LISA. LISA has a similar mission to LIGO, but the main difference is that its members plan to observe gravitational waves in space, not on Earth.
UF’s two major contributions to LIGO, Barke said, were its creation of the program’s lenses and developing the algorithm used to analyze data.
“Every photon,” Eikenberry said, “passes through UF-built optics.”
The algorithm used to detect the waves, called Coherent WaveBurst, was developed by Sergey Klimenko, a member of LIGO and UF’s physics department, Eikenberry said.
Of the different algorithms used to analyze the data, the one created at UF was the only one which detected the first observed gravitational wave, Barke said.
The data collected by LIGO can often be fuzzy and noisy like the sound recording of a movie, Eikenberry said. Klimenko’s algorithm works to suppress the noise and clarify the signal.
Barke said the first gravitational wave was discovered so quickly they feared the data may have been tampered with by hackers. The lab analyzed the information for roughly six months to confirm it.
A gravitational wave, Eikenberry said, is not a noise or something visual. It is a ripple in space and time.
The waves observed by LIGO were created by the colliding and merging of two black holes that were orbiting each other, Eikenberry said. Though this was thought to be rare, Eikenberry says all four confirmed gravitational waves that have been observed by LIGO have been created in this way.
Studying gravitational waves is important, Eikenberry said, because it can enhance our understanding of the universe.
Eikenberry said the discovery of gravitational waves and the stories they may tell have opened up a new window in the universe.