By now you must be aware of the groundbreaking discovery of gravitational waves made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). The announcement, made yesterday, has been called one of the most significant scientific advances of the modern era. And a Pakistani-born scientist is among the team that made this breakthrough discovery.
Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, a professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was born in Karachi and immigrated to the US as a teenager. After getting a B.A. in Physics and Astronomy from Wellesley College in 1990, she went on to receive her Ph.D. in Physics from MIT in 1997. A stint as a research scientist at Caltech was followed by her joining the Physics faculty at MIT in 2002.
Her work on gravitational waves was part of her research in graduate school at MIT, where she now is an associate department head of Physics. She credits her success to a host of mentors who’ve helped her get to where she is now with a special mention going out to the chemistry teacher in Pakistan who let her play with reagents in the lab after school.
If you’re unaware of the details, here’s the gist. Scientists, Nergis among them, have observed the warping of space-time generated by two black holes merging more than a billion light-years from Earth. It’s a massive confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and gives us a whole new way of looking at the universe.
Astronomy, before this landmark discovery, relied on light for observations whether it was UV, infrared or any other frequency. With gravitational waves, we now have an entirely different way of observing the universe.
Here’s what a LIGO scientist on Reddit had to say about the importance of these findings, ‘This discovery has ushered in an awesome new era of astronomy. Before we started detecting gravitational waves, looking out at the universe was like watching an orchestra without any sound. As our detectors start making regular observations of this stuff, it will be like turning on our ears to the symphony of the cosmos!’.
Prof Karsten Danzmann, from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany, told the BBC:
There is a Nobel Prize in it – there is no doubt.
It is the first ever direct detection of gravitational waves; it’s the first ever direct detection of black holes and it is a confirmation of General Relativity because the property of these black holes agrees exactly with what Einstein predicted almost exactly 100 years ago.
Will a Pakistani be among the team that receives a Nobel prize for the detection of gravitational waves? Only time will tell. Till then, it’s another feather in the cap for Pakistan and Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, to whom we wish our most heartfelt congratulations. Keep making our country proud!