How Gingin helped to make waves


Eric Howell, David Blair and Carl Blair speaking about gravitational waves at the Gingin Discovery Centre.
Eric Howell, David Blair and Carl Blair speaking about gravitational waves at the Gingin Discovery Centre.

GINGIN’S Gravity Discovery Centre (GDC) has lived up to its name – it helped scientists worldwide discover gravitational waves.

More than 100 people gathered at the centre last Friday to learn about the discovery from three of the 27 Perth-based scientists involved in researching gravitational waves.

GDC board member and UWA Professor David Blair, of Guildford, has been involved in the research for more than 40 years, but said the gravitational waves detection last September was “just the beginning”.

“All these years we’ve been trying and trying to make better and better detectors,” he said. “We wanted to listen to the universe – for the first time, we’ve heard the universe.

“This is just the beginning; it’s not the end. Now we are going to start exploring this new universe of gravitational waves.

“There are going to be lots of messages.”

The waves were detected at two Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO) located 3002km apart in the USA on September 14 last year.

Having switched from an engineering career overseas, Prof Blair’s son Carl is doing his PhD in gravitational waves research and was part of the team operating the LIGO equipment in Louisiana.

Speaking in Gingin, Mr Blair said he was asleep at the moment the waves passed through Earth, but scientists in Germany had been monitoring the output from their machines.

“Somebody picked up what looked like a gravitational wave and no-one believed it; it was such a strong light,” he said.

“It all seemed too perfect.

“We covered all bases – it’s taken from September to February to make an announcement because we really wanted to be sure it was a real signal.”

Yanchep resident and astrophysicist Eric Howell said it had been a privilege to be part of research, which involves about 1000 scientists around the world.

“It gives everyone a whole new way to look at the universe,” he said.

The waves, which took 200 million light years to reach Earth, came from two black holes spinning towards each other and then merging.

“That all happened in about one tenth of a second, from spinning around each other to getting to the point of touching then turning into a single black hole,” Prof Blair said.

The highly sensitive, 4km-long LIGO equipment detected the gravitational wave through lasers projected onto mirrors.

The audience of more than 100 at the February 19 event included students from Greenwood College, Mercy College and St Joseph’s School.

GDC business manager Jan Devlin said the event celebrated the discovery and the contribution Australian technologies made to it, including work done at the Gingin research centre.

CSIRO head of astrophysics Simon Johnston said it was an important discovery for physics and astronomy.

“Back in 1915 Einstein proposed that space-time is a four-dimensional fabric that can be pushed or pulled as objects move through it,” he said.

“If you run your hand through a still pool of water waves will follow in its path, spreading throughout the pool.

“Now that we’ve caught these waves, we can use them to see the universe in entirely different ways to what was previously possible.”

Gingin Gravitational Research Centre

UWA researchers contributed to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration project by using high power lasers at the Gingin Gravitational Research Centre to observe and test ways of scattering the laser beams.

They developed methods for preventing instabilities in the detectors, and PhD student Carl Blair had been setting up systems, first proposed and tested at Gingin, at LIGO that involved careful heating of the mirrors to make tiny changes in the shape.

Professor David Blair, who heads the UWA project team, said the search for gravitational waves had cost the international science community more than $1 billion but was worth it.

“Gravitational wave technology is already being applied to mineral exploration, time standards, quantum computing, precision sensors, ultra-sensitive radars and pollution monitors,” he said.

“We now have proof that the black holes of Einstein’s theory exist and are out there in the universe.”

Funding concerns

SCIENTISTS voiced disappointment about government funding levels for Gingin’s Gravity Discovery Centre and gravitational waves research.

UWA Professor David Blair said while some politicians worldwide welcomed the February 12 announcement, locally researchers faced funding cuts.

“It’s disappointing how low the level of scientific literacy is among our political people,” Prof Blair said.

A WA Labor statement said State Government funding for the GDC would end in June, leaving it to get by with the help of volunteers, private sector support and Federal grants.

Opposition Science spokesman Peter Tinley said the gravitational waves detection was a momentous achievement by the international scientific community.

“Researchers at UWA and the GDC should be justifiably proud of their significant contribution that opens up an entirely new field of astronomy,” he said.

“The GDC has had its funding whittled away over recent years, then had funding cut completely.

“Science and innovation are crucial to underpinning WA’s economy, and importantly, job creation.”

Responding to questions from the Weekender, Premier Colin Barnett congratulated the UWA team on its role in the discovery.

“The recent detection of gravitational waves will enhance the State’s growing role in scientific research,” he said.

“The State Government has been a major contributor to advancing understanding of our universe, including through previous support for gravitational wave research.

“The State is now focusing its efforts on radio astronomy, one of the science priority areas identified in A Science Statement for WA.

“The State already hosts two world-leading radio telescopes in the Murchison region and is preparing to co-host the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.”

A spokesman for the Premier said the State Government had previously funded research and infrastructure at the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre, including to establish the Gingin facility.

He said it created an exclusion zone around Gingin to prevent vibrations that would interfere with the instrument, and gave researchers access to Crown land for the instrument and GDC.

He said the Premier was not in a position to comment on whether it would support proposals for a Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in WA as that depended on international demand and support.