Astronomers used computer simulations and tennis ball juggling demonstrations to bring Albert Einstein’s latest-proven theory to life Thursday during a public lecture at the University of the Virgin Islands.
Organized by the University of the Virgin Islands’ College of Science and the Etelman Observatory on St. Thomas, the lecture was part of the “Generation-GW: Diving into Gravitational Waves” conference, which ran from June 5 through 9. It marked the first international astronomy meeting of its kind for the school.
About 50 community members attended the public talk to learn about gravitational waves from two leading theoretical astronomers, professors Jill Bellovary of Queensborough Community College (City University of New York) and Alberto Sesana of the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
Einstein’s mathematics predicted that massive accelerating objects like black holes orbiting each other could disrupt their surroundings in a manner that would give off gravitational waves of distorted space from the source.
First theorized by Einstein 100 years ago in his General Theory of Relativity, gravitational waves were not physically measured until September 2015. The waves are widely considered to be the greatest astronomy discovery of the 21st century, at least so far.
Measured by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, the system is designed to only measure small ripples given off by passing gravitational waves coming from objects in the faraway cosmos.
“For the first time, we can learn about the universe and its formation from something other than light,” Bellovary explained.
So far, LIGO has detected about four black hole mergers, said Bellovary, adding that the resulting gravitational waves that the mash ups make travel at the speed of light for billions of years.
“LIGO is just a window into a much vaster hidden universe,” said Sesana, who likened gravitational wave detection to being able to hear the universe instead of just see it with telescopes.
Gravitational waves allow humanity to also get closer than telescopes can to the Big Bang, what is commonly described as the beginning of the universe, said Sesana. That means LIGO can keep adding to the known universe as it detects more cosmic mergers in the future.
Antonino Cucchiara, assistant professor of physics who helped organize the conference, said the public lecture was incorporated to teach the community about what’s going on in the universe and to inspire students to study astronomy-related subjects.
The conference had international draw, with professors coming from the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy and the U.S. mainland. Two UVI students also participated in the conference to gain greater exposure to the field of study.
Cucchiara said that eight UVI students are doing internships with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). With projects ranging from building the next generation of microsatellites to studying the most powerful stellar explosions known in the universe, the students are getting a hands on look at what the career path could offer.
Cucchiara and his UVI colleagues are striving to turn UVI into an astronomy research hub.
“We are establishing a legacy, and these events will improve the recruitment of Virgin Islands students to study physics and astronomy at UVI,” said Cucchiara, in a press release about the meetings. “The conferences will also demonstrate how research and activities undertaken at UVI can benefit the community.”
Titled “Unveiling the Physics Behind Extreme Active Galactic Nuclei Variability,” the second conference will take places from July 11 to 14. The conference is limited to paid registrants, but there will be at least one free public talk.
According to David Morris, assistant professor of physics and director of the Etelman Observatory, active galactic nuclei “are galaxies that power extremely bright light sources at their cores through the interaction of supermassive black holes with nearby material that is falling into them.”