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Center To Lead Multi-Discipline Look At Gravity Waves

A multi-million-dollar, multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), along with significant support from Penn State, has created the Center for Gravitational Wave Physics at the University.

The center is funded at $1 million a year for each of the next five years and led by Lee Samuel Finn, associate professor of physics and astronomy and astrophysics.

The center supports an interdisciplinary team of scientists at Penn State and eight other participating institutions in the United States, Scotland, Canada, and Germany.

The researchers are poised to explore the mysteries hidden in the first signals ever detected from gravitational waves generated by the most massive and violent objects in the universe -- which they anticipate will be collected beginning next year by new gravitational-wave detectors in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, and by a space-based detector to be launched later this decade.

The Penn State center is among the first to receive support from the NSF Physics Frontier Center program. According to the NSF, the program funds research at the frontiers of physics and at the boundaries of physics with other disciplines that are of a scope and complexity requiring combinations of talents and disciplines, specialized infrastructure, large collaborations, and centers that catalyze rapid advances on the most promising research topics.

"The award of the Physics Frontier Center to Penn State is testimony to the exceptional quality of present research in gravitational physics in the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry," commented Daniel J. Larson, dean of the Penn State Eberly College of Science.

"Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1917 as ripples in the fabric of space and time, but for several decades the idea seemed exotic and remained in the realm of theory," explains Abhay Ashtekar, Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Physics, director of the Penn State Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry and chair of the executive committee of the Penn State Center for Gravitational Wave Physics. "It was only in the 1980s that the existence of these waves was firmly established through a decade of careful astronomical observations -- an achievement so important it was rewarded with a Nobel prize.

"We are now reaching a truly exciting era when these waves will be directly detected on Earth, opening a brand new window to the universe."

The new center has three main research thrusts: astrophysical modeling and interpretation of the forthcoming observations of such massive objects as colliding black holes; developing the numerical and analytical tools for testing Einstein's theory of General Relativity and for understanding both the sources of gravitational waves and the nature of space and time, and contributing to the design of more advanced gravitational-wave detectors.

"The center provides us with a wonderful opportunity to marry the recent development of instrumentation capable of observing gravitational waves with the growing body of theory about how those observations may reflect both the character of gravity and its potential sources," Finn says. "This center makes Penn State the place where these theories and experiments will be married to test the theories and to draw the best possible science from the forthcoming observations. We are looking forward to forging the collaborations that will create the new enterprise of gravitational wave phenomenology."

Ashtekar says the theoretical and experimental research communities in general relativity have not previously been strongly linked, but now the gravitational-wave observatories are rapidly changing this status quo and a new field of "gravitational wave phenomenology" is emerging at the interface.

"Sam Finn is a founding father of this field and our new center will crystallize its formation," Ashtekar says. "Because of his intimate knowledge of both theory and experiment, he is ideally suited to lead this national and international effort."

"We all expect that the detection of gravitational waves is not far off," says Barry Barish, the Linde Professor of Physics at the California Institute of Technology and director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). "Sensitively searching for these waves and exploiting their science will require an intimate partnership between experiment and theory. The exciting new Penn State Center promises to provide just that missing link and we look forward to its crucial contributions to our field."

The center's establishment as a geographic and intellectual focal point with a strong program for visiting scientists is expected to promote important, and comparatively quick, contributions to the field. In addition, the NSF funding has built-in flexibility to encourage researchers to address important questions by changing their focus as needed.

"We will be the first to explore this brand-new field where no observations of this kind have been possible before," Finn says. "As we move forward, we expect our anticipated research approach might change as we learn what problems we must address. That type of flexibility for doing aggressive and timely studies, which the NSF encourages, is the key to frontier research."

As part of its educational mission, the center will reach middle-school children nationwide through an affiliation with the "What's In the News?" educational program produced by WPSX-TV. In addition, the center's outreach program features three programs designed for three specific groups: girls in junior high school, with participation in the Women in Science and Engineering "Expanding Your Horizons' workshop; female freshmen and sophomores in college, with the Women in Science and Engineering Research mentoring program; and Hispanic students who are juniors or seniors in college or graduate students, as part of a liaison with the University of Texas at Brownsville.

Finn is director of the center; Pablo Laguna, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and Peter Mészáros, Distinguished Professor and head of the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, are co-principal investigators; and Ashtekar is chair of the executive committee.

Steinn Sigurdsson, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics, and Alexander Wolszczan, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, also are among the Penn State researchers associated with the center.

Along with UT-Brownsville, institutions collaborating with the center are the University of Utah, Louisiana State University, University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, University of Glasgow, University of British Columbia, and the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Members of the center's Advisory Committee include Barash; its chair, Ramesh Narayan, professor of astronomy at Harvard University; Karsten Danzmann, professor of physics at the University of Hannover in Germany; Sir Martin Rees, the Royal Society Professor at King's College of the Cambridge University in England; and Saul Teukolsky, the Hans Bethe professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University.

The gravitational-wave detectors that are expected to provide the data for researchers at the center include: the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), with locations in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana; VIRGO, located in Italy; GEO 600, a British/German collaboration; TAMA 300, a Japanese project; Allegro, operated at Louisiana State University; and other similar cryogenic resonant detectors worldwide.

In addition, the proposed space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), comprising three spacecraft flying above Earth, is expected to be launched within ten years. As part of its commitment to the field, Penn State will play host to the fourth annual LISA Symposium in 2002. - By Barbara K. Kennedy

Related website:

Penn State Science

[Contact: Lee Samuel Finn, Abhay Ashtekar, Barbara K. Kennedy ]






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