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In search of inspiration

Scotland has a great science base here at home, but to stay at the forefront we have to make sure we look outwards…

In search of inspiration

In search of inspiration

Scotland has a great science base here at home,” says Professor Sheila Rowan, the Director of the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) at the University of Glasgow. “but to stay at the forefront we have to make sure we look outwards.”

And you can't look much more outwards than towards two black holes colliding in a galaxy a billion light years away... Rowan, who is also the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government, played a key role in the first detection of gravitational waves, helping to develop key components used in the detectors, working with her colleagues in Glasgow and elsewhere in the UK, as well as the US and several other countries all around the world. And she sees the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) project as an excellent example of the kind of teamwork required to make such incredible breakthroughs.

“When it comes to big questions like gravitational waves, no country can answer them all on its own,” says Rowan, “and that is why it's so important to attract talent and exchange ideas with scientists in other countries. Science today is an increasingly international and collaborative activity, operating in a borderless environment.”

In her role as Chief Scientific Adviser, Rowan has to keep in touch with many different scientific disciplines, and for her, public outreach has always been part of the job – in LIGO as well as in her government role. Nowadays, she also has to focus on science for policy (where science can inform government policy in areas such as the environment and energy) and policy for science (how government stewards research), as well as science for society, explaining why it matters to the general public, or as Rowan puts it, “articulating the relevance.”

One of her main roles is to head the drive to make the country more “science literate” in general, and inspire young people to become scientists. “When you make the front page of the papers with a story like that (the first detection of gravitational waves), it helps get the message across,” she explains. “It is also a model example of the excellence and leadership of scientists in Scotland, and the part they’re playing in the quest to understand the Universe.”

Rowan herself has been part of that quest, and has a favourite quote about the nature of discovery and scientific progress: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man,” wrote George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman, published just a few years before Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. “And what we’ve done at LIGO could also be described as an ‘unreasonable’ measurement,” Rowan continues, “because it was such a great challenge, pushing hard to improve the precision of the instruments, and reduce the noise from other sources.”

The scientists in Glasgow have made important contributions to the technologies used in the LIGO detectors. For example, Rowan and her team developed the ultra-low noise suspensions of Advanced LIGO, “without which the detections could not have been made,” says Rowan’s colleague, Professor Martin Hendry – Head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Glasgow and the co-Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Group in LIGO.

The project has already led to several spin-offs, says Rowan, including new technologies developed in Glasgow, but Scotland's contribution to LIGO has not just been around designing and developing the instruments themselves, but also the techniques used to analyse the data from the instruments, as well as “worrying about the astrophysics.”

The success of the project will also help to create an “entirely new field of astrophysics,” Rowan continues. Scientists have already developed telescopes to detect various kinds of electromagnetic radiation – the beautiful optical images we see from telescopes or images created from infrared or ultra-violet light – but detecting gravitational waves is not an imaging technique per se, she explains, but more like “feeling the vibrations of space-time” as the distances between mirrors inside the detectors are stretched and squashed. Using an optical telescope, there might be “nothing to see” when you point it at some sources of gravitational waves, but LIGO is a different way of “sensing” or detecting the waves, and getting rich information about them.

“We thought that we would first detect gravitational waves from colliding neutron stars,” says Rowan, “but it happened to be two colliding black holes, and that was a big surprise.”

Also unexpected was the size of the two black holes (29 times and 36 times the mass of the Sun) and the result of their merger – 62 times the mass of the Sun. “This kind of new observation should let us probe currently unanswered questions in astrophysics, including what the properties of the original stars were, from which such massive black holes were born,” says Rowan.

When the black holes collided and merged, they released a huge amount of energy – the equivalent of three times the energy stored in the Sun – in a fraction of a second. On Earth, this may have been a tiny movement, 1.3 billion years later, but it will have enormous implications for the future of science for decades to come.

For Rowan, the discovery came after three decades of specialist research. At school, she found it hard to choose between journalism and science, as a future career, “but science won,” she says, “because it asked the biggest, most interesting questions like where did we come from and where are we going.” She first came across gravitational waves as an undergraduate in Glasgow, doing a summer project on laser interferometry, using the basics of the same techniques as LIGO but in a desktop model; and 30 years later, her passion remains. Her early work involved the development of lasers for gravitational-wave detectors, and more recently her research has been focused on studying the properties of materials used for the mirrors used in the gravitational-wave detectors.

Rowan likes to feel part of “a bigger endeavour,” using state-of-the-art tools to understand the Universe, and working with a team of more than 1,000 people in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a network based in 15 countries all over the globe, involving senior researchers and professors in more than 90 universities and research institutes, plus about 250 contributing students.

Her work on the mirror suspensions is something that Rowan will always be proud of, helping to develop “super-low-noise” solutions for the GEO600 detector in Germany and upgraded versions of these for the more advanced systems in LIGO. But no matter how important these technical advances are, for Rowan there is always another more human dimension.

The challenge in future, she says, will be making sure scientists still have the freedom to work in a borderless world towards common objectives – not just to make important breakthroughs such as detecting gravitational waves and developing exciting new technologies, but also to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and turnon the general public to the wonders of science.


Professor Sheila Rowan MBE, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the American Physical Society and the Institute of Physics, is Director of the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) at the University of Glasgow. She has made important contributions to the development of the ultra-low-noise suspensions for Advanced LIGO, which played a major role in the success of the project. Rowan also currently chairs the Gravitational Wave International Committee (GWIC) and in 2016 she was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the Scottish Government.




"In search of inspiration". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty)
Printed from on 05/04/20 05:05:45 AM

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