Penn State researcher sees physics work come full circle

By Ben Manning
February 11, 2016

Penn Stater Chad Hanna saw a decade of his work come to fruition Thursday (Feb. 11) when the Laser Interferometric Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Scientific Collaboration, in conjunction with the National Science Foundation, announced the discovery of gravitational waves.

“This detection from LIGO is one of the biggest physics discoveries of this century,” he said.

Hanna, an assistant professor of physics at Penn State, has been working with LIGO since 2004 when he got involved in the research as an undergraduate student.

“Penn State has always offered its undergraduates a tremendous experience for research,” Hanna said. “I actually got started in LIGO as an undergraduate at Penn State myself. At the time, of course, we were just really starting observations with LIGO — the initial LIGO experiment hadn’t even reached maturity. At the time I was brought in to work on LIGO, it was extremely exciting, because we were all hoping that some grand discovery would be made while I was working on it.”

Ten years later, that discovery has been made.

Hanna’s work focuses on detecting gravitational waves created when two binary neutron stars or black holes circle each other, getting closer and closer until they collide and merge. LIGO scientists announced Thursday that they have detected those waves for the first time, proving the final portion of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

“Having been through more than a decade of working with LIGO, always pressing onward to try and make a discovery possible, it’s almost impossible to believe it’s happened.”

Hanna is sharing his excitement with the next generation of undergraduates. “My students will be coming in at a pretty wonderful time, and they will have a perspective on this field that’s a lot different than what mine was,” he said. “They’ll come in at a time when everything gets so exciting, it’s no longer about the promises of the future but about what we have now available to us.

“They’re going to be able to be hands-on involved in actually learning about the universe with LIGO observations. When I was an undergraduate, we were simply trying to get over the hurdle of being able to make observations.”

Hanna says it’s impossible to predict how this new discovery will change the world in which we live, but he thinks it will affect more than just the scientific community.

“I don’t think the average person stops to think too much about just what space and time are,” Hanna said. “But when we tell them we are absolutely sure the space around them everywhere is wiggling about because somewhere off in the universe a black hole has merged, I think that will send a pretty profound message to hopefully everyone about just how cool a place our universe is.”

For more on this groundbreaking discovery, Hanna writes about the day LIGO made history for The Conversation.

  • ripples in space time

    Merging black holes ripple space and time in this artist's concept.

    IMAGE: Swinburne Astronomy Productions

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Last Updated February 12, 2016