Epoch-making events in science and technology come along only so often… Engineering Scotland organised the 2016 Autumn Lecture “Detecting gravitational waves: a new window on the Universe” on Monday 24th October 2016, when we welcomed Professor Jim Hough, Research Professor in Natural Philosophy, University of Glasgow, to enlighten us about the recent, spectacular detection of gravitational waves after many patient decades of pursuit, and to outline the UK’s contribution to the scientific effort.
A century ago, Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity and part of this theory suggested that there should be waves – Gravitational Waves – which carry information about violent gravitational events in the Universe. We now know that there are very violent events associated with, for example, the coalescence of neutron stars, and the formation and interactions of black holes . However the distortions in space time associated with the waves from such events are predicted to be so small that the experimental challenges associated with detecting them have been exercising physicists for the last 50 years.
But now, 100 years after the prediction of the existence of gravitational waves, the advanced detectors of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) has detected such signals for the first time, the source being coalescing black holes considerably heavier than the sun. This heralds the opening of a new window in astronomy.
In this talk, Jim explained the nature of gravitational waves, describe what sources can produce them, the engineering background to LIGO, and outlined the UK contribution that allowed the detection to be made. Further, Jim discussed plans for future detectors on earth and in space.
The Autumn Lecture was kindly hosted by a good friend of Engineering Scotland, Professor John Marsh, Dean of UESTC (University of Electronic Science and Technology of China), University of Glasgow at the Charles Wilson Lecture Theatre.