Fourteen professors, students and former students in the UTRGV Physics department are among 1,015 people recognized with a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.
The Special Breakthrough Prize is an award from the Milner Global Foundation in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement.
Gravitational waves were predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Their existence was demonstrated in the ’70s but the first observation of the waves themselves occurred last September.
The discovery was made by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which was built to search and detect gravitational waves. The facility consists of detectors that are located in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash.
“Gravitational waves are, basically, changes in gravity … that are emitted when very massive objects in the universe move around or collide,” said Teviet Creighton, an associate professor in the UTRGV Physics department and contributor to the LIGO project. “In this particular case, the collision that was observed was between two black holes, two large objects, each about 30 times more massive than the sun.”
The crashing of the black holes caused their gravitational field to change and ripple out. The observation was made about a billion years later because that’s how long it took for the waves to reach Earth, Creighton said.
By observing and discovering the existence of gravitational waves, it confirms that black holes exist because since they emit no light, there was always just indirect observations of them, said Volker Quetschke, an associate professor in the UTRGV Physics department and chair of the Lasers and Auxiliary Optics working group.
“The fun part about these new developments is we don’t know what we are going to see because it’s completely new,” Quetschke said.
The prize money will be shared between the three founders of LIGO, Ronald W. P. Drever, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss, who will each equally share $1 million; and 1,012 contributors to the experiment, who will each equally share $2 million.
This discovery not only opens a door to the world of physics, but it gives great opportunities for students here at UTRGV because they can be part of the team at the Optics & Nanophotonics Lab, which is run by Malik Rakhmanov, an associate professor in the Physics department and contributor to the LIGO project.
The lab has a triangular ring resonator; this is a device that was on one of the actual LIGO detectors, which discovered the existence of gravitational waves.
Yelbir Kazhykarim, a master’s student in physics, and Artemiy Bogdanovskiy, a doctoral student in physics, work along Rakhmanov and conduct experiments with the resonator.
“This is actually a great lab, very well equipped, much bigger universities don’t have such labs,” Kazhykarim said. “Here, graduate students have a very unusual opportunity to improve their basic skills and have lot of guidance from Dr. Malik. In a lot of other places, you wouldn’t get as much attention of your supervisor as you can get here.”
Besides Creighton, Quetschke and Rakhmanov, members of the UTRGV Physics department who made contributions as co-authors of the scientific paper “Observations of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger” and who will share the prize are Professors Mario Diaz, Soma Mukherjee and Joe Romano; Research Assistant Professor Joey Key; former graduate students Pablo Daveloza and Sean Morris; UTRGV-UT San Antonio cooperative doctoral students Marc Normandin, Robert Stone, Darkhan Tuyenbayev and Guillermo Valdes. The late Research Assistant Professor Cristina Torres, who died March 9, 2015, also is listed among the award recipients.