What’s it like to work with Nobel prize winning scientists – especially the kind that make fascinating discoveries – of gravitational waves emanating from black holes about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, colliding around 1.3 billion years ago?
You can definitely expect a few surprises, naturally, as did Dr Ed Daw, reader in gravitational waves and dark matter physics from the UK’s University of Sheffield’s department of physics and astronomy. He remembers being interviewed for his post doctorate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Rainer Weiss, this year’s recipient of the physics Nobel. “I was wearing my ‘only’ smart suit and Weiss walked in wearing a woolly hat, baggy sweater and jeans. I had to reassure him that this was the last time he’d see me dressed up that way. He looked relieved,” recalls Daw.
Someone who has worked with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) scientific collaboration which discovered the cosmic gravitational waves, Daw says he’s thrilled with the news of the physics Nobel winners Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry C Barish.
Knowing four Nobel laureates “reasonably well”, he says he finds them to be great leaders and organisers of large groups. Some have ideas that change science. Some predict things that turn out to be insightful and true. “Rai Weiss is one – others are Charles Townes (who invented the Maser – a forerunner of the Laser), Jerry Friedman and Henry Kendall, who drove the SLAC/MIT experiment that proved quarks are real entities inside nuclei. They are all different, and all interesting in different ways,” he says.
For people at LIGO, Weiss is an unconventional “fellow” in the best sense of that description, “who has inspired a generation of experimental physicists, including me,” says Daw
As his first job involved working in the group at MIT which Weiss started, Daw was with him from the start of his time in gravitational wave science. “ Rai’s unconventional personality and enthusiastic, sociable style of doing science, coupled with his outstanding talent for the work, make him stand out from the crowd, and also cause him to inspire others to do their best work.”
Daw remembers many memorable conversations and experiences with Weiss – driving around LIGO with bags and boxes full of cables and gear to chase down some problem, having dinner with their families, or just discussing results and data. “He’s just a good guy to chew the fat with, and he is always supportive of people trying to solve problems that matter,” he says.
On the other two winners of the physics Nobel this year, Daw finds Barish to be a particularly effective leader and manager of large scientific teams. “It’s not easy getting over a thousand scientists to function as a coherent unit. Barry proved through his leadership of the LIGO lab during the critical period when LIGO was being built and upgraded to its current configuration that he has a gift for this very difficult and important job.”
Thorne is a theoretical physicist who is happy to work with experimentalists – though he has done much important theoretical work in the theory of gravity and spent a lot of time thinking about classical physics that is important to the functionality of LIGO. He has used his influential position at Caltech to advocate LIGO throughout the history of the project, “and I doubt that LIGO would have succeeded without his help in persuading the US funding agencies to come up with the money,” Daw says.
This, Daw feels, is a great time to be involved in investigating the non-luminous side of the universe, both the compact dense dark sources of gravitational waves and the dark, diffuse matter that makes up most of the matter in galaxies, and indeed most of the matter in the universe. The unifying thread is that by no means everything in the universe shines, and the matter that doesn’t shine plays a critical role in the evolution of our universe, and will also likely play a critical role in its future.
“We need to understand this kind of science to make progress on answering the big questions,” he says.