What does it all mean for astronomy?

19 February 2016

Interview with

Professor Sheila Rowan, University of Glasgow

The fields of physics and astronomy is buzzing with the gravitational waves Infra-red view of the solar systemdiscovery but why? What are the wider implications for something like this? Graihagh Jackson sat down with Sheila Rowan to discuss how this will completely change our outlook on the universe...

Sheila - These gravitational signals come from objects that may not emit any light. Black holes are called black for a reason.  And two black holes colliding as we've detected, that's an event that might not produce any other optical signal or light, electromagnetic signals, X-rays.  We just don't know that but it's possible it doesn't produce anything other than gravitational signals.  And that means with these detectors, for the very first time, we can potentially sense a whole new set of events in the universe we couldn't see any other way.  It also means there are other sorts of things out in the cosmos, some things that do produce optical or other light like supernovi.  We so those with our current telescopes but, on the whole, we typically see the outside of a star exploding.  We also get some particles called neutrinos that can come from that event that come from the inside but mostly we see the outside.  Gravitational signals, because of the way they're produce, they come from the actual matter, the mass in that star exploding and so we might, actually, be able to get insights into the mechanism - what actually happens inside a star when it explodes.  We've got theories for that right now but we don't actually know.  We also may see whole different classes of things, types of events like neutron stars, very exotic stars.  We don't know exactly what the material is inside a neutron star.  It's under such pressure, high density.  You couldn't even try and replicate that on earth - space for that is our laboratory. Neutron stars smashing into one another, a neutron star being eaten by a black hole. Those are all the fascinating things to try and see the gravitational signals from and as we improve our detectors, make them even more sensitive, we will be able to sense these kinds of things of an even larger volume of the universe.  Right now we're just starting to be seeing these things, hearing these things.  In fact, as time goes on we'll see further back in time and possibly one of the most interesting prospects is - what we don't know.

We have ideas about what might be out there but this is the first time we've been able to sense the gravitational universe.  Every other time a telescopes turned on, whether it was an X-ray, UV, gamma ray, all those telescopes out there, people saw things they didn't expect.  So, I think we might see gravitational waves from new things we haven't even thought of yet.

Graihagh - Sounds like something a bit out of scifi but the way I'm envisioning it, things you don't know, some of the unknown unkowns out there that we might finally be able to detect.  A new era.

Sheila - I think that's right.  It's a whole new way to do astronomy and I think it's going to be very exciting in years to come.

This is a fantastic field to work in.  I know I wanted to be a scientist and wanted to be a physicist, I think since I was about nine years old and when I was young I couldn't think of anything more exciting to do in life than spend it studying these big questions and the universe.  When you go out and look up, where it all come from? What's out there? HOw far does it go? And I've been lucky enough that I've been able to spend my life working in this area and doing that and I hope.... it's a fantastic life and I really hope that we'll see more smart young people coming into physics and wanting to follow this path because it's a fantastically enjoyable thing to do.

Graihagh - Watch this space then...

Sheila - Or as my colleague in Glasgow always says "watch this space time."

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