Exploring the Universe with Gravitational Waves: A New Frontier in 21st Century Astronomy and Astrophysics
Direct observation of gravitational waves will be one of the big events of 21st- century astronomy. The U.S. Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the French-Italian Virgo observatory are now working to detect gravitational waves from deep space. When they detect these waves, astronomers and physicists will be able to study the universe in an entirely new spectrum. "The scientific community eagerly awaits the first detection and confirmation of gravitational-wave signals," says Cottrell Scholar Duncan Brown. Brown's Cottrell research is focused on using LIGO and Virgo data to explore the nature of gravity as postulated in Albert Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. Brown intends to use computer modeling to understand more clearly the "strong-field regime" of Einstein's theory - specifically, what happens to gravity when black holes or very dense neutron stars, with their massive gravitational fields, collide in cataclysmic death spirals. These events are among the most violent in the universe. "The objects orbit hundreds of times per second at separations of tens of kilometers before plunging together," Brown says. He is also hoping to link specific electromagnetic observations - light, radio waves - of such an event to gravitation wave observations of the same event, a process that just might identify specific gravity waves for the first time, and perhaps even reveal secrets about the nature of spacetime, a central concept in Einstein's relativistic universe. Brown is an ideal researcher for this work because of his pioneering role in the Numerical INJection Analysis (NINJA) project, the first large scale collaboration between the gravitational-wave source modeling and astronomy communities.
Brown's Cottrell Scholar education plan is motivated by his desire to promote a broad understanding of science and the Scientific Method among the general public. To do this he will focus on three fronts: a) improving the college experience of science for non-science majors by incorporating student-centered learning into an introductory astronomy course; b) involving undergraduates in cutting-edge research, thus lowering the barrier to a scientific career; and, c) bringing the excitement of modern astronomy to middle-school students by adapting demonstrations from the undergraduate classroom for use by fifth- and sixth-grade students in after-school programs. These goals align well with Syracuse University's vision of Scholarship in Action, which extends traditional scholarship beyond the classroom to include engagement with the campus community, the City of Syracuse, and locations across the globe.