A New Era in Astronomy

LIGO project and the discovery of gravitational waves received a lot of attention, even outside of academic circles. PhD Life talked to Avneet Singh, one of the PhD students from LIGO team.  

What does the discovery represent?  

This discovery of the gravitational waves also serves as a direct proof of Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, published in 1915. Precisely after 100 years of the advent of General Relativity, its smoking gun(s), i.e. gravitational waves, were found. With more precise measurements and more such events, we will soon be able to find further corrections/modifications to the theory of General Relativity, and be able to explore it in great depth. This starts a new era in astronomy, of Gravitational Wave Astronomy. Gravitational waves are also predicted to be emitted at the Big Bang; those ancient signals (called ‘primordial gravitational waves’) are extremely extremely weak. In roughly two or more decades, we hope to be able to be sensitive enough (with incredibly more sensitive future detectors, including the upcoming duo in Japan and India, besides LIGO’s 2 and VIRGO’s 1) to capture the holy grail of the Universe.

In terms of a life of an individual, besides the extra attention, nothing much has changed (for most people). We are obviously very happy that the efforts of past 25 years have finally paid off. It feels like a truly great achievement to be part of such a gang-of-science-people. At the same time, we also realise the possibility of measuring many more such phenomenal (theorised) events in the cosmos. LIGO finished its O1-run on January 12, 2016. We have already gotten down to the task of analysing the rest of the data from O1 (for similar kind of sources, as well as from other exotic objects such as ‘neutron stars’), and prepare our techniques for the second 6-month observation-run O2 starting in June 2016.

A simulation of a binary blackhole merger in action (Image credits: MyReadactor

What is it like for a PhD student to work on a project like LIGO?  

The current set of people working on data-analysis/theory is very young. LIGO has a very extensive pool of junior-scientists/senior-scientists/post-docs. This makes the average age not-so-high. I can only speak of my own experience [as a theorist/data-analyst] and my institute [Max-Planck-Institute für Gravitationsphysik], and we don’t have so many PhDs here – at least in my group. Most of the data-analysis/theory group here is dominated by post-docs/junior-scientists/senior-scientists; the current number of PhDs is merely 4 as opposed to roughly 15-18 post-docs, besides computer scientists. This is not true for instrumentalist/experimentalist side of work, where there are many more PhD students. It may be the case that data-analysts/theorists are cherry-picked, but I cannot be sure of the reason. It might as well be a coincidence.

Since we are not so many PhD students in number, there are a lot of new aspects of data-analysis/theory for us to explore. Given the large number of senior members, we have a very knowledgeable and resourceful pool of colleagues, and it is a very good place for us to express ourselves independent of any peer-pressure. I cannot speak highly enough of the kind of research environment I experienced as a PhD here. It has truly been the most relaxed as well as the most efficient I have ever felt. Plus, knowing that you are an integral part of something like LIGO Scientific Collaboration is very exciting. The social and academic dynamics of such a big and international collaboration are remarkable experiences in their own right.

Will you be able to use these findings in your thesis? 

Yes, indeed! Besides, this is merely the beginning; we expect to detect more such signals in the future. The current discovery showed us the existence of Binary Blackhole systems. I am part of the group that searches for much weaker signals from isolated Neutron Stars. We have only detected one of the possible 6-7 sources for gravitational waves! This should be a good indicator of how much more there is to be achieved and discovered. Moreover, since I am also a theorist, the implication(s) of such a discovery is extremely relevant and critical to my own work.

What do you see as greatest advantages and disadvantages of working on such high profile projects?  

To be honest, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else. In that sense, I have never thought of possible tangible advantages, or disadvantages. I do it for my love for Physics and everything else is secondary. In terms of the scale and profile of such a project, one can always think of it in a way that it allows you to work on something new, something radical, and something that can potentially change how we explore, view and analyse the universe, and our existence in it. This realisation can be very surreal, and it often gives me great personal elation to be able to explore philosophy and science in such a way. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to work amongst – arguably – one of the smartest/knowledgable group of people on the planet. The pool of thoughts and ideas and interpretations is immense!

In terms of possible disadvantages, I cannot think of any! Honestly.

With research in this field, sometimes it takes a lot of time to make progress and see results. How do you stay motivated? 

There are always times like those when you don’t feel as excited or motivated. This is true for even the most stimulating fields of work/study. Sometimes, it is for personal reasons; on other occasions, it could be work related. I do get frustrated every now and then when the work gets monotonous, or when my code is not working for some mysterious reason. Usually, that doesn’t last very long [Ha-Ha!]. We do get a LOT of travel in our work, mostly since the collaboration is very large and international. I have personally travelled to Scotland, Japan, South Korea, US and India on work related trips for conferences and seminars in the last year. I guess what I am trying to say is that when one finds a reason to be demotivated, a week long trip to a foreign and unexplored territory is always a refreshing change.

Plus, it varies a lot from person to person. I have never had much of an issue with trying to remain excited about my work. I believe one of the reasons is that I love doing this a lot; this may partly be because it is easy for me to find joy in almost anything. Literally, anything goes.

Do you still have to explain to your family members/relatives what kind of research you’re doing?  Yes, that is definitely the case. Since this field of research is a bit ‘out there’, it is never easy to start to explain the details; trying to explain the very basics of it and its utility is trouble enough. The specificity of Gravitational Wave Astronomy is our enemy in this case. Moreover, I come from a conservative culture, and being a researcher in such a society is seen as a very inefficient way to live a life. I guess I had to decide at some point in my life [when I was an undergraduate back in India] if I wanted to live for myself, or if I should play a role in reaffirming the pathetic prejudices set against my passion for research by my surroundings [i.e. society + family + culture]. It was a leap of faith but I made it. It could have been scary but I never stopped to think of the consequences. It was naive in a way but it panned out alright in the end.

We’re grateful for Avneet’s time and if you would like to learn more about LIGO project and the discovery of gravitational waves, read his article LIGO – our primitive ears to the music of cosmos, where parts of this text have been first published. 🙂

Avneet Singh is precisely a quarter of a century old now and a Junior Scientist (PhD) at the Max-Planck-Institute für Gravitationsphysik in Hannover, Germany. His true love is Physics (Astrophysics & Astronomy, to be precise) and he has an affair with the sport of Snooker. He has a fully completed but unpublished novel sitting somewhere in his room. He ‘often’ writes poetry and short stories (once published), and updates them sporadically on his blog. He has lived in 5 different countries by now: India, USA, Austria, Italy and Germany over the past 6 years. His newfound love for Model United Nations, and in general Global Politics, has reached unhealthy proportions but he doesn’t seem to care much about it. He goes on long runs every now and then, enjoys travelling alone, and absolutely loves mountains and long trekking expeditions when he can. He seems to enjoy classical music a lot, and with each passing day, his interest in music seems to shift backward in time. He is currently exploring compositions from the 11th century AD up to the 16th. This doesn’t imply that he doesn’t love what the new age has to offer; he remains an avid listener of Progressive and Psychedelic Rock, and a great admirer of Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree.

(Also, several antibots have confirmed Avneet is human.)

Ana Kedveš  (@anakedves)

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