Riding the gravitational wave: Andrews University professor plays part in cosmic research

Tiffany Summerscales, associate professor of physics at Andrews University, stands in front of a collection of books on the very subject she teaches. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Tiffany Summerscales, associate professor of physics at Andrews University, stands in front of a collection of books on the very subject she teaches. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BERRIEN SPRINGS — It’s hard to make general relativity and astrophysics exciting.

Tiffany Summerscales found a way to do so.

During a national press conference last week, it was announced that a decades-long collaboration had successfully measured gravitational waves. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – commonly referred to as LIGO – is designed to detect gravitational waves from some of the most exciting cosmic events in the universe. Once these evasive waves are caught, they reveal information about the bodies releasing them.

Summerscales, an associate professor of physics at Andrews University for nearly a decade, said these waves allow for the possibility to watch scientific events that have never been observed, such as black holes colliding and supernova explosions.

“Its main intent is to start a new field of physics called ‘gravitational wave astronomy,’” she said. “This is important because now we can find new things that we haven’t been able to before. With black holes, they are hard to observe. The only thing we have been able to observe is when stars and other objects orbit around them. By using data collected from these gravitational waves, we can observe the light around the black hole. So we are getting a direct line of information on the black holes.

“The same thing goes with a supernova explosion. Before you could only see the outer layers of the explosion. Now the waves can tell us what’s going on in the middle of the supernova.”

LIGO consists of two widely separated interferometers within the United States – one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La. – operated in unison to detect gravitational waves.

Summerscales has played an active role in conducting LIGO’s research as part of the team of international physicists working on detecting and measuring these waves. Summerscales has researched with LIGO since 2000, when she was a graduate student at Penn State University.

When she was an undergrad at Andrews University, Summerscales said she pondered what form of research to get involved in. Amid her findings Summerscales found a description of LIGO online. She was drawn to the collaboration immediately.

“Most of the work I do with LIGO has to do with data analysis,” Summerscales said. “My students and I work on teams that build computer algorithms that sift through the data that pull out the gravitational waves’ signals.”

Last week’s press conference describing the first detection of gravitational waves from a pair of black holes that were orbiting each other didn’t come as a surprise to Summerscales. She had known about it for months.

The official date of the discovery was Sept. 14, 2015. It took until February to ensure all the data was correct.

“It’s been hard to not run down the hall screaming, ‘We did it! We did it!’” Summerscales said. “We had to keep everything quiet and do all these checks to make sure the detector and the data was OK. We checked to make sure it was measuring and that it was as sensitive as we thought it was. There’s lots of boxes to check. You have to be sure when it’s the first one.”

In the last few months, Summerscales’ excitement began to build as each one of those boxes were checked off. She said it became a reality for her when she watched the press conference.

“It was a pretty cool moment. Now it’s only going to get better,” Summerscales said. “It’s a really exciting time. For so many years we’ve been working on building this instrument that can detect gravitational waves, while looking forward to the time when we can use it for astronomy. That time has started. We can become the astronomers we set out to be.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Feb. 19, 2016)

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