A conversation with Greg Ogin
Video produced by Matt Banderas and Gillian Frew | Story by Gillian Frew.
For the past 10 years, Assistant Professor of Physics Greg Ogin has been involved with the LIGO project, a massive collaboration of scientists from around the world working toward a common goal: to identify gravitational waves, an elusive phenomenon otherwise known as ripples in the fabric of spacetime.
In September, these scientists detected a signal which overwhelming evidence suggested was a gravitational wave—the first ever to be recorded by humans. The sound, which registered as a faint chirping, was an echo of two black holes colliding about 1.3 billion years ago. Traveling through space at exactly the speed of light, the ensuing gravitational waves not only confirm Albert Einstein's prediction in his general theory of relativity, but also offer a groundbreaking new way to observe the universe without electromagnetic radiation.
Yesterday, LIGO announced their breakthrough to the public.
"This is exciting for so many reasons," said Ogin, who woke up at 3:30 on Thursday morning to work on his campus presentation and tune into the official LIGO press conference, which took place in Washington, D.C. at 7:30 a.m. PST. The historic announcement made the front page of The New York Times and was covered by international media.
"This discovery opens up an entirely new world of physics and astronomy, and for the prospects of testing general relativity in the future... We're now going to be able to start looking at black holes as they interact with each other."
Whitman President Kathy Murray said LIGO's detection of gravitational waves "is likely to be one of the most significant scientific advances of the century."
She added, "The fact that a member of our faculty and a number of his Whitman students contributed to this work is very exciting and provides strong evidence of the quality of the scholarly and creative work that takes place on this campus."
Benjamin H. Brown Professor of Physics and science division chair Mark Beck agreed, calling it a "truly amazing experiment" that offers "a whole new way of looking at the universe."
"This is also great for Greg and our students," Beck said. "Greg has been working on LIGO for many years, and I'm glad he was able to share this moment with the Whitman community. There's still more work to do, and that's what Greg and his students are working on in his lab—the next generation."
Ogin began working with LIGO as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. In 2013, he joined the Whitman faculty, where he has continued his research on gravitational-wave detectors, often involving students who take his intro and upper-level physics classes or work with him directly as lab assistants.
"Working with Professor Ogin was a great learning experience because he gave me the chance to take my own approach to physics research," said Greg Holdman '16, a physics and mathematics major and student researcher. "As a new physics student, this was very important to my development."
For Ogin, involving students in the research process is an integral part of his teaching methodology.
"Part of my research that's just starting to pick up in the last few years is looking at the data that comes out of the Hanford detector and analyzing its quality," he said. "So we look at how often there are these weird blips and creaks, and we try to figure out what they are and how we can reduce them."
The Hanford site, about an hour and a half drive from Whitman, houses one of two LIGO observatories in the nation. The other facility is 2,000 miles away in Livingston, Louisiana.
"I have students with laptops at Whitman who can go onto the LIGO site and download data and start looking through it," Ogin said. "I've had a couple of students give presentations on the results of these types of things to LIGO groups that actually work on the detectors."
LIGO's big announcement ended a months-long embargo as scientists verified their discovery, accounting for any possible interference or "noise" in their data readings—the blips and creaks Ogin mentioned.
Later that day, he addressed a full auditorium in Olin Hall, discussing the significance of this major scientific milestone and answering questions from the crowd. Audience members asked about the possibility of a Nobel Prize for the leaders of the experiment, and whether Ogin considered this revelation to be on par with the discovery of the Higgs boson or "God particle." (He said yes, but added, "I might be biased.")
Holdman, who plans to attend graduate school for physics next year, said, "I often stop to think about how much humanity has learned about the universe just by looking at it with light. To think we can now look at it with gravitational waves is almost like inventing the telescope all over again."
One thing is for sure: "It's an exciting time to be in gravitational wave physics."
(Updated Feb. 16)