LIGO prepared the first direct observation of gravitational waves, ripples in space and the time first predicted by Albert Einstein more than 100 years ago. The project’s twin detectors, one in Hanford, Washington and the other in Livingston, Louisiana, registered the quivering waves from the titanic merger of two distant black holes.
Whitcomb will discuss the vital of the discovery, how it confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity and opened a novel way of viewing the universe for astronomers. “This is not inaccessible ‘rocket science,” says Whitcomb, who is presently retired but still caters as the chief scientists for LIGO. “With appropriate explanations, high school kids can comprehend most of the science behind LIGO.”
He will also talk about the technical challenges of the LIGO detectors, which in order to detect gravitational waves, had to make measurements on imperceptibly small scales, and down to subatomic levels where quantum fluctuations of matter influence estimates.
Though the notion of LIGO dates to the 1970s, the endeavour was still taking shape when Whitcomb joined the project in 1980. At Caltech, he aided oversee the design and construction of LIGO’s 40-meter prototype, where many of the ideas for the current instruments were tested.
Whitcomb also catered as the head researcher for the construction of the initial LIGO detectors, and stayed active on the team until the project’s momentous discovery in 2015.
Whitcomb retired on September 2015, which coincidentally turned out to be one day after LIGO’s big discovery. He recalls taking a walk with his partner on September 14 after reading the first reports of the identification and explaining to her that his retirement was not going to be as quiet as he thought. Part of Whitcomb’s retirement work was to co-chair a committee to carefully evaluate the veracity of any signals in the unlikely event that any would be identified.
“I recognized the signal of gravitational waves right away,” says Whitcomb. “But it was the committee’s job to pick apart the signal and make sure it wasn’t anything else but gravitational waves. We spent months trying to throw cold water on the detection; until we were eventually convinced it was the real thing.”
Whitcomb’s talk is part of session entitled, “Gravitational Waves Communicating the Science and Wonder of LIGO,” in which Lynn Cominsky from Sonoma State University and Joey Key from University of Washington will talk about LIGO’s educational and outreach efforts
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