Pondering the Discovery of Gravitational Waves with the 2017 Nobel Laureate in Physics

A contingent of 11 AP Physics students attended a special lecture at the University of Connecticut in Storrs on October 28, featuring 2017 Nobel Laureate Rainer Weiss, Ph.D., Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Weiss shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two physicists from Caltech: Kip S. Thorne, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics, and Barry C. Barish, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Physics. The prize was awarded “for their epochal discovery of gravitational waves, waves that had been predicted by Albert Einstein using his General Theory of Relativity no less than a hundred years before,” the UConn Department of Physics said in announcing that Weiss would deliver the university’s 2018 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecture. The title of his presentation was “Exploration of the Universe with Gravitational Waves.”

Steven Bailey, who teaches physics and is the former Science Department Chair, learned about the lecture from Paul Gonzalez, the newest member of the science faculty and a graduate of UConn. Both teachers attended the lecture with students from two AP Physics classes. “I find it exciting to expose our students to cutting edge topics in physics,” Bailey said. “We were studying gravity and Newton pleaded for someone to help him understand what he was seeing as two bodies attract each other. It was not until Einstein (over 200 hundred years later) that someone finally was able to provide Newton with answers about the fabric of space itself and show how bodies attract one another.”  

The universe’s gravitational waves were observed for the very first time on September 14, 2015, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science said in announcing the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. “The waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a hundred years ago, came from a collision between two black holes. It took 1.3 billion years for the waves to arrive at the LIGO detector in the USA,” the academy said. “The signal was extremely weak when it reached Earth, but is already promising a revolution in astrophysics. Gravitational waves are an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge.”

“LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is a collaborative project with over one thousand researchers from more than twenty countries. Together, they have realised a vision that is almost fifty years old,” the academy said, describing Professors Weiss and Thorne as “pioneers,” who, counter to Einstein, “were firmly convinced that gravitational waves could be detected and bring about a revolution in our knowledge of the universe.”

According to UConn, Weiss’s lecture touched on some basic concepts of gravitational waves, the instruments and the methods of data analysis that allow scientists to measure gravitational wave strains, and his vision for the future of gravitational wave astrophysics and astronomy.
The Gunnery students who attended had the chance “to see what college lectures are all about and see firsthand the kind of research that is at the cutting-edge of physics,” Bailey said. For him, the most exciting part was the opportunity “to learn how gravity waves might someday tell us the internal structure of planets and stars.”

In 2017, the academy explained the significance of the discovery this way: “So far all sorts of electromagnetic radiation and particles, such as cosmic rays or neutrinos, have been used to explore the universe. However, gravitational waves are direct testimony to disruptions in spacetime itself. This is something completely new and different, opening up unseen worlds. A wealth of discoveries awaits those who succeed in capturing the waves and interpreting their message.”

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.