Having worked on the science of Einstein’s gravitational waves for more than 30 years, I had the great pleasure and satisfaction of being part of the first-ever direct detection in September 2015, a milestone in physics and astronomy that was finally announced in February 2016. I had only recently (2014) retired from my position as a director of the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI) of the Max Planck Society and returned to my previous professorship at Cardiff University in Wales, where I have helped set up the new Data Innovation Research Institute.
I am a signal-hunter: I specialize in hunting for weak signals buried in background noise. My contribution to gravitational wave science has been to try to perfect our ability to recognize and extract the very weak signals that Nature provides against detector noise. Although our detectors are wonderfully quiet, detecting signals and understanding what they tell us requires as much information as we can get beforehand about what the signals might look like. This involves using supercomputers to make models of sources of gravitational waves, inventing clever analysis methods to match signals with these supercomputer predictions, and keeping up with the latest information that other astronomers and astrophysicists can provide about our likely sources (black holes, neutron stars, and ??).
What I write in this blog is drawn from a range of experiences: research at the intersection of physics, astronomy, and mathematics; science administration in helping to found the AEI in 1995 and to grow it into a world-class center for research in general relativity and quantum gravity; science policy, particularly pressing the case for building gravitational wave detectors and more recently pushing for open-access publishing; growing up in the USA, then spending most of my working life in Europe, and of course making friends in the science community all around the world; and – best of all – helping to raise three wonderful daughters.
My interest in gravitational waves grew out of a fascination with Einstein’s relativity that developed in my teenage years in Bethpage, NY, and was nurtured during my undergraduate study at Clarkson University. I was then fortunate to be able to do my PhD in relativity physics at Caltech under the supervision of Kip Thorne, finishing in 1971.
In the early 1980s, by then at Cardiff University, I worked with Jim Hough the University of Glasgow to develop the British gravitational wave effort. We later joined with German colleagues to build the GEO600 detector, and my move to the AEI helped cement this collaboration. We allied ourselves with the US LIGO gravitational wave project through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and we used GEO600 to develop and prove a large fraction of the key technologies that enabled LIGO’s momentous detection on September 14, 2015 of the gravitational waves emitted by two black holes merging together. Now I am looking forward to having enormous fun working with the data to come, and to continuing to work with my AEI colleague Karsten Danzmann to help bring about the next revolution in gravitational wave astronomy, the LISA mission of the European Space Agency.
Being a director of a Max Planck institute gave me the freedom, and indeed the responsibility, to take initiatives I could not have taken from a normal university professorial position. I feel strongly that scientists need to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with the public, so I have done a lot of outreach work over many years, especially in cooperation with the amazing Susanne Milde on the Scienceface project. I also felt there was a need and opportunity for a new kind of scientific review journal, so in 1998 I began publishing Living Reviews in Relativity — online, subscription-free, up-to-date survey articles. Fifteen years later LRR had become the highest “impact factor” open-access journal in the world. LRR and two sister journals were transferred from the Max Planck Society to Springer in 2015, after my retirement. My experience with LRR has convinced me that scientific research would benefit enormously from the conversion of its journals to an open-access business model. Such a conversion will not be easy, but it will be worth it!