Helping Discover the Nature of the Universe
MORE THAN A BILLION YEARS AGO, two black holes began twirling around each other at speeds near 50 percent the speed of light. When they merged into one, the cataclysmic finale sent shockwaves through the universe. After a 1.3 billion light-year journey, that shock reached Earth where it provided the first direct proof of the existence of gravitational waves.
These signals were measured by researchers at the Louisiana and Washington sites of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and mark a major discovery for the fields of physics and astronomy.
For HSU Alumnus Corey Gray (‘97, Physics & Applied Mathematics), the discovery was a reward for years on a job spent searching the sky for signs of gravitational waves. “The direct detection of gravitational waves is eye opening and paradigm shifting, much in the same way humanity discovered the Earth was not flat, but spherical. These monumental jumps in discovery are part of human evolution,” says Gray, who is a supervisor of the operator team at the Washington-state LIGO site where he’s worked since 1998.
Albert Einstein first suggested the existence of gravitational waves in his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. A century later, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration documented the existence of these waves and sent the scientific community reeling at this monumental discovery.
The findings are described in “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger,” published in Physical Review Letters. The New York Times described the discovery as a “great triumph,” while the U.K.’s Independent called it “the scientific discovery of the century,” that opens up a whole new realm of astronomy.
A member of the Siksika (Northern Blackfoot), Gray traces his interest in science back to watching his dad work in electrical engineering and the quick-thinking television character MacGyver. “I had always thought studying physics would be really cool, but it was hard to make the leap because growing up there aren’t many role models for Native youth in the sciences,” says Gray. “I wanted to be a Native MacGyver.”
While studying at HSU, Gray found what he calls his “second family” among classmates in the Indian Natural Resources, Science & Engineering Program (INRSEP) and other Native organizations at HSU. Gray had come to HSU as a transfer student from Cal State San Bernardino and found himself homesick in the Cypress Residence Hall. Through INRSEP, he was able to make deep connections and connect with his heritage in ways he hadn’t explored as a youth. “I really appreciated the opportunity to learn about my Native background,” Gray says. He was also a member of the campus’s American Indian Alliance and HSU Student Drum.
Shortly after the gravitational waves were measured, Gray returned to HSU as the keynote speaker for American Indian College Motivation Day, where he emphasized the roles his internships played in getting established as a young scientist. He completed internships with the Department of Energy, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and UC San Francisco.
LIGO is continuously undergoing upgrades to expand the scope of its observations and soon sites in Italy, Japan, and India will come online to add to the collection of data. For Gray, who is part of the LIGO Education & Public Outreach Team, now is the time to spread the message of scientific exploration. “In addition to continuing the hunt for gravitational waves, another important aspect of our job is to share these discoveries with the world. Gravitational wave astronomy is completely new, and we need more future scientists to continue this work.”