GraWIToN, an MSCA Innovative Training Network (ITN) project funded under the 7th Framework Programme (FP7) set out to train 14 early stage researchers in the gravitational wave search field. Their ground-breaking discoveries eventually contributed to the work of the 2017 Nobel Prize winners in Physics. We talked to the GraWIToN researchers almost eight years after the project’s beginning, to explore the myriad of benefits their work has brought, and the exciting developments to come.
The positive impact of the MSCA on the careers of the GraWIToN researchers
In an exclusive interview with REA, the researchers were asked what effect the MSCA programme has had on their careers thus far, and what it was like to be part of a project, whose research ultimately contributed to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. The fellows highlighted, how ‘GraWIToN provided them with the perfect platform as PhD students, with wonderful supervisors who nurtured many curious minds!’
When asked about the contributions of their work to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, one GraWIToN researcher gushed that ‘it was one of the happiest moments of my life’. Others added that ‘it was especially touching and heart-warming to be around the more senior researchers in the collaboration that finally got their well-deserved reward and recognition, after a long struggle to get the gravitational wave detectors built and up and running.’
Many of the team members continue to work in gravitational wave science research, having had ‘an undoubtedly beneficial experience in the three-year training, allowing them to learn fundamental knowledge and skills’. The overall experience has since inspired them ‘to dedicate a full academic career and take on more responsibility to contribute to gravitational wave science’. But what exactly is gravitational wave science? And how have the GraWIToN project’s discoveries added to our understanding of the universe?
What are gravitational waves? How do they relate to Einstein’s theory of general relativity?
In 1905, unsatisfied with Newton’s gravitational laws, Albert Einstein published his general theory of relativity. Newton’s theory had assumed that time and space were fixed, and that gravity did not affect the underlying space and time but acted within it. Einstein instead proposed that space-time was in fact curved and that this did have an effect on matter. Perhaps a helpful image for us to visualise this concept is a heavy ball that is rolling on a trampoline – the ball will curve the fabric of the trampoline where it lands and, will also move in accordance with those curves. Space, is therefore not an immovable backdrop for the universe, but rather a flexible fabric in which matter and time are inextricably linked.
100 years after this theory was published, the MSCA GraWIToN researchers were able to prove that Einstein had (of course) been correct through their detection of gravitational waves (GW). These waves, which appear as ripples in the fabric of space, are a direct manifestation of the theory of general relativity.
Advanced LIGO & VIRGO detectors opening up a new golden era of astrophysics
Thanks to advanced detectors located in both the U.S. (LIGO) and Italy (VIRGO), the teams of researchers were able to read the gravitational wave signals emitted by two merging black holes rotating one around the other. This phenomenon was first detected on 14 September 2015 and after much analysis, the results were published in February 2016. A second burst of gravitational waves was detected on Christmas Day in 2016, proving that the previous detection had not been an isolated event. Six years on since the first detections by LIGO & VIRGO, many more detections have been and are continuing to be made.
The existing benefits of the GraWIToN research
So far, the researchers of this project noted that their work has already ‘participated in advancing the frontiers in several fields of physics, such as laser interferometry, quantum optics, optical materials, data analysis and astronomy’. Going forward, they also predict that it will have an impact on ‘future mainstream technology, in algorithms used by large IT companies for analysing big data, or play roles in advancements of fundamental physics that in turn lead to completely new technology applications’. As the GraWIToN researchers noted, LIGO and VIRGO have enabled these discoveries by ‘pushing the boundaries of our human knowledge.' They added however, that improvements in detectors are still needed ‘in order to better understand the nature of the universe and how it behaves’.
Projections for the Einstein telescope - a tool for unlocking our universe
One such detector currently in progress is the Einstein telescope, an underground infrastructure which would host a third-generation gravitational wave observatory with increased sensitivity. This technology will be included in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) 2021 Roadmap, which is supported by the European Commission. The Einstein telescope’s improved sensitivity would ultimately extend the horizon of the detector and therefore ‘yield more significant detections which encode the information about the earlier universe.’ The researchers added that such improved detectors could also reveal crucial information about the ‘formation of stars, and origin of the planets’.
Having recently celebrated the MSCA’s 25th anniversary, it is inspiring for us to see the extraordinary impact that the programme has had, not only on the careers of the talented GraWIToN researchers, but also in contributing to breakthrough findings across many research areas. Here at REA, we look forward to more exciting discoveries to come through the Marie Skłodowska- Curie Actions, which continue to foster excellence in research and innovation both in Europe and across the globe!
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