Rock Star Researchers

23 May 2016

“Woodstock for physicists” is how Carleton physics professor Nelson Christensen describes the Washington, D.C., press conference at which scientists announced their groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves—the ripples in the fabric of space and time that Albert Einstein famously posited a century ago. When the speakers walked on stage at the March event, Christensen says the crowd erupted “like the Rolling Stones had walked out.”    

He isn’t exaggerating. The scientific collaboration used a $1.1 billion set of instruments known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory—or LIGO—to detect a gravitational wave generated by the collision of two black holes. Built by Caltech and MIT with observatories funded by the National Science Foundation, LIGO is comprised of scientists from around the world. Carleton joined the collaboration in 1999. (Carleton physics professor Joel Weisberg also has worked on gravitational waves, though not on this particular discovery.)

More than 1,000 scientists contributed to the verified discovery paper, which was published in the Physical Review Letters journal, including five Carleton alumni—Tom Callister ’13 (Caltech), Santiago Caride ’08 (Texas Tech), Michael Coughlin ’12 (Harvard), Tomoki Isogai ’10 (MIT), and Adam Libson ’04 (MIT)—and current Carleton students Nathaniel Strauss ’16 (Holmen, Wis.) and Jialun Luo ’16 (Guangzhou, China), who received full authorship on the article.

“Now that we can detect gravitational waves, it’s a whole different way of looking at the sky,” says Strauss. “I feel tremendously lucky to be at Carleton and working with Nelson. It’s such a wonderful opportunity to have this experience so early in my career.”

“I can’t tell you the number of times someone in the collaboration said to me, ‘Hey that graduate student of yours is really productive.’ ” says Christensen. “And I’d say to them, ‘Yeah, he’s an undergrad.’ ”