UK makes waves at the world's largest science gathering AAAS

February 18 2017

A year on from the announcement of one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in a century, and gravitational waves is on the agenda at the world’s largest science gathering, the AAAS.

On February 11 last year, scientists announced the first-ever detection of gravitational waves, confirming a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity. News of the discovery captured headlines across the world. Being able to detect these echoes from distant events allows scientists to tackle some of the unanswered questions about the Universe.


LIGO uses L-shaped detectors to ‘listen’ for gravitational wave energy.
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)
Click image to enlarge

At this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is in full swing in Boston, the UK, which played a key part in the discovery of gravitational waves, is moderating a session on the topic, ‘Opening a New Ear to the Universe with Gravitational Waves’.

UK scientist Sheila Rowan, MBE, is moderator. The session has been organised by the Science and Technology Facilities Council who are part of a UK delegation at the conference with Research Councils UK and other UK partners, to showcase UK research excellence.

Sheila Rowan, MBE, and Director of the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research, said: “A year after the announcement of the historic first detection of gravitational waves, it's fantastic to be here at the AAAS to share the excitement of a year in the life of this new field and our plans for the future.”

Gravitational waves were first detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), based in the US.

They are extremely hard to detect, as they interact weakly with particles, so extremely sensitive equipment is needed to detect them. Confirming the existence of these waves would not have been possible without the UK’s intellectual, financial and technological contribution to the LIGO international science collaboration.

Technology in the UK allowed the device that was used to detect them to be held absolutely still in order to accurately measure any movement from gravitational waves.

A technical upgrade of LIGO to Advanced LIGO (aLIGO), possible thanks to £8m capital funding from STFC and expertise from UK universities, has now increased the sensitivity of these detectors up to tenfold.

Black Holes

Einstein predicted that two black holes colliding would create a very distinctive signal.
(Credit: STFC/Ben Gilliland)
Click image to enlarge

Today’s session at the AAAS explains what gravitational waves are, how scientists are detecting them, and why our ability to do so will allow scientists to uncover more secrets of the universe, its origins and time itself.

It will feature Takaaki Kajita (University of Tokyo), Stefano Vitale (University of Trento) and Sarah Spolaor (National Radio Astronomy Observatory).

This is just the start for LIGO and other gravitational wave detectors, as the new era of gravitational wave astronomy has just begun. It is estimated that as the LIGO becomes more powerful, this will lead to many more detections from different events even further away.

Find out more about the UK’s role in the discovery of gravitational waves in STFC’s new video.

The search for Gravitational Waves
(Credit: STFC)

Today’s gravitational waves session is one of a number at the AAAS that British researchers and institutions have been involved in. Their talks will cover a range of topics, reflecting the breadth of the UK’s research excellence.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000