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2016 was an extraordinary year for the Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC) and the field of gravitational-wave physics in general. This report looks back at some of the center's highlights.

 

The Discovery of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger - On September 14, 2015 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors recorded gravitational waves for the first time. This confirmed Einstein’s prediction from 100 years earlier that changes in gravity create waves of space and time. The source of the waves was also a completely new discovery: two black holes, more than 1 billion light years away from Earth, each around 35 times as massive as the sun, orbiting around each other at a quarter the speed of light. These black holes crashed into each other, forming a new black hole with 67 times the mass of the sun and releasing 3 times the mass of the sun as gravitational-wave energy, according to Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. 

Figure 1 of the GW paperFigure 1: The gravitational-wave signal GW150914, measured by LIGO on September 14, 2015. Lovelace and collaborators calculated the theoretical waveform in the second row (

 

detection checklistFigure 2: “The Detection Checklist is Go!” Image Credit: Nutsinee Kijbunchoo from LIGO Magazine issue 8. GWPAC played an important role in this discovery. Ten Center members were among the 1000 authors on the landmark paper that announced these results. Josh Smith had the honor of serving as one of the six primary editors for the paper and leading the efforts (the so-called detection checklist) to verify that this was a true gravitational wave and not a terrestrial disturbance. Geoffrey Lovelace performed computer simulations of the binary black hole system that were shown in the paper and also led the production of the famous figures 1 and 2 in the paper. Jocelyn Read helped configure the gravitational-wave searches that found the event, was the editor of the science summary of the paper, and communicated the discovery to the world through LIGO’s Twitter and Facebook outreach campaign.

 

This discovery was announced on February 11, 2016 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Smith attended that event. Read, Lovelace and students held a press conference at Cal State Fullerton. The first detection of gravitational waves was the culmination of decades of research. Cal State Fullerton and GWPAC have, for the past six years, made key contributions to gravitational-wave physics as members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes collaboration. In particular, GWPAC members contributed to understanding the behavior of the detectors, improving the quality of LIGO optics, modeling gravitational waveforms for binary systems of neutron stars and black holes, and improving LIGO’s gravitational-wave searches. All of this work has paid off in a major way.

Gravitational Wave StudentsFigure 3: GWPAC students and faculty at the Cal State Fullerton press conference.

 

Following the discovery, GWPAC was honored to host CSU Chancellor Tim White, Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard, and CSUF President Mildred García to discuss the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy and the operations of the Center. Later, together with the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, GWPAC hosted the "Gravitational Waves: Examining the Universe in a Whole New Way" event at the Center Club in Costa Mesa. This was attended by friends, faculty, administrators, students, and other supporters. Most notably, this event announced Dan Black and family’s establishment of and major support for the Dan Black Director of Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy, inaugurally held by Josh Smith.
 

jocelynReadOnFoxFigure 4: Jocelyn Read on FOX11. For the full clip see https://t.co/aol1GVFrtQFollowing the announcement, many GWPAC members were covered in media. Read was interviewed on public radio 89.3 KPCC. Television coverage included FOXLA’s “Breakthrough: Scientists detect Einstein’s gravity wave ripples,” CBS2 LA’s “Cal State Fullerton Researchers Help Confirm Presence Of Gravitational Waves Predicted By Einstein,” and CNET Tomorrow Daily’s, “LIGO team member Joshua Smith explains gravitational waves discovery with Tomorrow Daily.” In print, Lovelace contributed to the Ars Technica, article “How gravitational wave detectors survived the Contract With America,” Read was quoted in theNature News article, “Young scientists poised to ride the gravitational wave” and the OC Register ran an op-ed “José Luis Cruz: The 'ripple effect' of the university's centers and institutes” discussing the center. The Research Corporation For Science Advancement posted an article on Smith’s role entitled, “Cottrell Scholar Plays Key Role in Gravity Wave Confirmation,” and Smith and the GWPAC team were named among Orange County’s 100 most influential people of 2016. GWPAC students were covered in the Daily Titan’s “The Brains Behind the Gravitational-Wave Discovery.” Al Agnew received an artist’s touch as part of CSUF’s 21st Century Titans.
 

Smith also received a letter from US Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) congratulating him on the observation of gravitational waves and the role played by California Scientists.

 

The Second Gravitational-Wave Discovery – On the evening of December 25, Pacific Standard Time, LIGO registered a second gravitational-wave signal, this time produced during the final moments of two black holes, 7.5 and 14 times the mass of the sun, that merged 1.4 billion years ago. With this observation of a second binary black-hole merger, LIGO has clearly entered into an era of gravitational-wave astronomy. This discovery was announced on June 15, 2016 by LIGO Scientific Collaboration Spokesperson Gabriela Gonzalez at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, CA. Again, GWPAC contributed in important ways as described in CSUF News’ “It’s no fluke.”

Black hole merger modelFigure 5: Supercomputer relativity model of the second gravitational wave event. The blue curve shows how much the gravitational waves stretch and squeeze a detector as they pass through it. The images above show the horizons of the black holes and their orbits as they spiral together and merge. Calculations and image courtesy CSUF undergraduate Alyssa Garcia, Geoffrey Lovelace, and the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Collaboration.

 

Student outcomes -  The research at GWPAC provides discovery-level scientific opportunities to students at Cal State Fullerton and benefits greatly from their contributions. Since its inception, GWPAC has trained 39 students in research. Eight of those students are now in PhD programs across the United States: Thomas Abbott (LSU Physics), Matt Giesler (Caltech Physics), Reza Katebi (Ohio Physics), Kevin Kuper (Arizona Optics), Fabian Magaña-Sandoval (Syracuse Physics), Erik Muniz (Syracuse Physics), Daniel Vander-Hyde (Syracuse Physics), Gabriela Serna (Syracuse Science Teaching). Nine of our former students are applying their skills in industry: Evan Foley (DNB Engineering), Gabe Islas (Liminit), Cinthia Padilla (Northrop Grumman), Chris Francis (Air Force), Chris Griffo (Celestron), Brian Kuper (Cytec), Jackie Lee (Northrop Grumman), Po-Feng Chen, and Skye Harris. Other students are pursuing different degrees: Sarah Wood and Susan Vong (transferred to UC Berkely), and Phillipe Rodriguez (Stanford MBA program). Veronica Lockett, April Hankins, and Ivan Ozaeta are teaching as adjunct faculty. GWPAC members have authored more than 30 publications since the center formed, many with student co-authors, as listed on the GWPAC publications page. Additionally, center members have given dozens of presentations at national and international meetings, conferences, and colloquiums.

 students aps utahFigure 6: GWPAC students (from left) Haroon Khan, Conner Park, John Derby, Alyssa Garcia, Nick Demos, Nousha Afshari, and Torrey Cullen presented and discussed their research with scientists at the April Meeting of the American Physical Society in Salt Lake City in April 2016.

2016 has been no exception. Nousha Afshari gave one of two student speeches at the 2016 CNSM commencement. Haroon Khan traveled to Brazil to present on the gravitational-wave discovery. And GWPAC students gave a number of excellent presentations at both the 2016 April American Physical Society Meeting and the 2016 SACNAS National Conference.

GWPAC, together with partners at Syracuse University, also began a new NSF-funded Partnership in Astronomy and Astrophysics (PAARE). This five-year program, led by Prof Jocelyn Read, is currently supporting research by CSUF students and Syracuse graduate students and will support a summer undergraduate research program with three students from Citrus College each year.

 

Nousha at graduationFigure 7: GWPAC member and 2016 graduation speaker Nousha Afshari. Photo Credit: Matt Gush.


Outlook –
The groundbreaking discoveries of gravitational waves from binary black holes in 2015 have opened a new field of astronomy. Cal State Fullerton’s GWPAC is well positioned to continue and to expand its contributions to gravitational-wave astronomy and to help make new discoveries, interpret their implications, and communicate them to other scientists and to the public. The center’s undergraduate and master’s students will continue to play crucial roles in this early work at the dawn of the age of gravitational-wave astronomy.

In particular, Smith will attack the problem of light loss from imperfections in LIGO optics to help increase the volume of the universe that LIGO can see; Read will continue a leading role in the search for gravitational waves from systems that involve neutron stars, likely LIGO’s next big discovery; and Lovelace will expand work in theoretical understanding of thermal noise, one of LIGO’s most important limitations, and in how space and time behave in the extreme gravity of black holes and neutron star binary systems.
 

A key direction forward will be to identify areas of overlap between the existing GWPAC research and Al Agnew’s mathematical relativity group. We expect all GWPAC members to benefit from the addition of mathematical relativity to our research directions.
 

Finally, we are conducting a search for a Postdoctoral Research Associate and we hope to hire a talented person in early 2017.
 

Happy New Year from all of us at GWPAC!