The Day the Universe Shook

Research confirms Einstein’s theory

Jordan Palamos’ resumé reads: Member of the team of international scientists that confirmed Albert Einstein’s 100-year-old theory of general relativity.

Not bad for a 26-year-old.

Palamos ’12, a physics and astronomy grad and a doctoral student at the University of Oregon, conducts research at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) in Richland, Washington. Earlier this year, LIGO recorded the first-ever evidence of strong gravitational waves, proving space and time are interlaced and that humankind is physically connected to the farthest reaches of the universe. It also confirms the existence of black holes — one of the most frightening consequences of Einstein’s theory because of their ability to gobble up solar systems.

The team’s breakthrough made the front page of The New York Times and appeared in Nature magazine.

“LIGO has the potential to revolutionize astronomy in the same way Galileo’s celestial telescope did,” says Palamos, whose job at LIGO is to ensure that the observatory’s sensors can distinguish terrestrial events, such as earthquakes, from vibrations caused by gravitational waves from space. “It offers us a new way to discover things that we didn’t even know to be looking for, using gravitational-wave astronomy.” 

The LIGO team confirmed gravitational waves by measuring minute ripples in space-time — ripples that were caused by the merger of two black holes more than a billion light years away.

The collision of such massive objects shook space-time with a force 50 times greater than the energy created by all the universe’s stars combined and sent a gravitational wake spiraling into deep space where it was detected by LIGO.

In addition to studying gravitational waves, Palamos uses LIGO’s data in his doctoral research to examine huge flashes of gamma ray light in space. Observing gravitational radiation in conjunction with gamma ray bursts could help scientists understand what causes these mysterious events.

“There’s no question that my USF education played a key role in preparing me to contribute to LIGO’s research,” Palamos says. “But even more important, my professors really wanted me to succeed, not just earn good grades. They encouraged me to pursue an advanced degree, offered advice, and wrote letters of recommendation. That’s probably why I’m still in contact with several of them to this day.”