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Scientists prove Einstein's theory of relativity.
ASU's Krauss was right about gravitational waves.
February 11, 2016

ASU's Krauss hails discovery, which he predicted, as important as the invention of the telescope

Everything shifted this morning.

In the 100th-anniversary year of Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientists announced they have proved it.

Using a stunning display of technological prowess, a group of physicists measured gravitational waves, a ripple in the fabric of space caused by the collision of two immense objects far out in the universe.

The discovery is on par with the invention of the telescope, said Lawrence KraussKrauss is also Foundation Professor of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and director of its Origins Project. The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University.

“It heralds what I think is the beginning of the new astronomy for the 21st century,” Krauss said. “Gravitational-wave astronomy will be the astronomy of the 21st century. It’s opened a new window on the universe, just like the telescope in some sense or when we first used radio waves to explore the universe.”

Researchers at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, used two detectors at opposite ends of the country to measure a change in length down to a tolerance of one ten-thousandth of a proton.

“Using gravitational waves to explore the universe will allow us to see things we could have never seen before,” Krauss said. “We’ll be exploring science in a domain we’ve never seen before. It will also allow us to explore objects in the universe we’ve never seen before.”

The LIGO experiment observed the collision of two black holes. Black holes are at the center of virtually every large galaxy, and their dynamics may be related to the dynamics of galaxy formation. It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Which formed first?

Two incredibly immense black holes collided, converting a mass three times the size of the sun into energy in a single second, sending out a ripple in space and time.

“It allows us to see things that are just truly mind-boggling,” Krauss said. “A black hole with a mass 39 times the mass of our sun collides with another black hole 26 times the mass of the sun, comes together to make one big black hole that’s 62 times the mass of the sun. If you do your addition, 62 is not 39 plus 26, it’s three solar masses smaller. Three solar masses of energy went in a second into gravitational waves. … Our sun over 10 billion years is only going to convert a small fraction of its mass into energy by burning 100 million hydrogen bombs every second. But in one second or so, in a very short time — BOOM — three times the mass of the sun was converted by E=mc²In physics, mass–energy equivalence is a concept formulated by Albert Einstein that explains the relationship between mass and energy. It states every mass has an energy equivalent and vice versa — expressed using the formula E=mc² where E is the energy of a physical system, m is the mass of the system, and c is the speed of light in a vacuum (about 3×108 m/s). — Wikipedia into energy. It’s unfathomable. It just disappeared. Imagine our sun just disappearing in a second.”

“Gravitational-wave astronomy will be the astronomy of the 21st century. It’s opened a new window on the universe, just like the telescope in some sense or when we first used radio waves to explore the universe.”
— Lawrence Krauss, ASU theoretical physicist and cosmologist

In order to detect gravitational waves, researchers had to build a detector. There are two detectors: one in Louisiana and the other in Washington state, each with two perpendicular arms 4 kilometers long. When a gravitational wave comes along, one arm gets shorter and one gets longer periodically, and vice versa. Gravitational waves change length. What the physicists looked for is a disturbance in both detectors, separated by the time it would take light to travel from one detector to the other. (Gravitational waves travel at the speed of light.)

They fired lasers down the arms and bounced them off mirrors at either end. The laser path lengths are equal under normal circumstances, but not when a gravitational wave passes through.

“It’s a testament to human perseverance and ingenuity,” Krauss said. “What was required to build a detector to detect gravitational waves is unbelievable.”

It’s like being in California and detecting a leaf falling in Virginia. The system is so sensitive a truck hitting a pothole miles away threw it off in the early years when it started operating in 2002. The arms are so long that the curvature of the Earth is a measurable 1 meter (vertical) difference over the 4-kilometer length of each arm. “The most precise concrete pouring and leveling imaginable was required to counteract this curvature and ensure that LIGO’s vacuum chambers were truly ‘flat’ and level,” the lab’s website said. The detectors are so precise continental drift had to be taken into consideration, Krauss said.

“They had to be able to measure the change in length of a 4-kilometer-long tunnel by an amount equal to one ten-thousandth the size of a proton,” he said. “When you say that, it’s just amazing. It’s just amazing that human beings could do that. They had to push quantum technology to its limits. Even the quantum fluctuations of atoms in the mirror are such that even those have to be controlled. It’s just amazing what they can do. It’s proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Science-fiction writers wouldn’t dare to even propose it, but it’s been done. It’s taken 20 years of hard work by thousands of physicists; there are more than 1,000 people working on that collaboration.”

LIGO will allow the laws of physics to be tested in domains never seen before, like the event horizon of black holes, “which is that region inside of which you never get out, and which, if you’re near, strange things happen — if you’ve seen the movie ‘Interstellar,’ time dilates and everything else,” Krauss said. “It’ll be a whole new type of astronomy.”

He appreciated the poetics of the discovery happening in the anniversary year of relativity.

“It’s beautifully fitting that on the 100th anniversary of the development of general relativity, when Einstein first proposed the existence of gravitational waves, that they’ve finally been directly discovered,” he said. “It’s superlatives all over. It’s an amazing piece of work by an amazing group of scientists who were dedicated to doing something that appeared impossible, to discover something that opens a new window on the universe. And every time we open a new window on the universe, we’ve been surprised. I’m sure there will be surprises.”

Krauss has taken abuse from some quarters for teasing the announcement on his Twitter feed, once this past September and again in January. (One astrophysicist claimed to be “appalled” by the tweets.) Krauss thought drumming up interest in a major discovery was the right thing to do.

“If scientists are excited, I didn’t see why the public shouldn’t be,” he said. “No one on the project told me anything in confidence. I just heard the rumor, and it turned out to be true. … The net result was hundreds of articles are being prepared now for this result that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t in some sense laid the groundwork. … I think I’d say I was doing God’s work, if I believed in God.”


Top image: A visualization of gravitational waves produced by two orbiting black holes. Image by Henze/NASA.

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Civil War-era log cabin gets historical highway marker.
ASU prof discovers personal connection to university through historical project.
February 12, 2016

ASU professor's efforts help historical landmark — the cabin of her ancestor, a former slave — get highway marker

The United States is a young country, but it still has its fair share of history.

Anyone who has ever taken a road trip has seen the scores of historical markers dotting the nation's highways, pointing the way to hidden treasures of America’s past.

Now, thanks in large part to the efforts of Arizona State University professor Angelita Reyes, the Parker Sydnor Log Cabin in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, is one of them.

The Civil War-era cabin stands as testament to a time in our nation’s history when newly freed African-American slaves began to establish themselves as productive members of society, serving as a home to successful tombstone carver and former slave Patrick Robert “Parker” Sydnor.

A historical-site highway marker stands next to a wooded road.

Recognizing historical sites like the cabin, which Reyes refers to as “vernacular” and “of the people,” is just as important as recognizing the more “elite” historical sites, such as George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

As the great-granddaughter of Sydnor, Reyes said the cabin has personal significance for her. Nearly a decade ago, she embarked on a mission with her family to include it on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. After achieving both in 2007, Reyes turned her attention to obtaining an official Virginia state historical highway marker for the cabin. That too was achieved, this past fall. 

“It’s a real achievement because now we have established this public history as having national importance,” Reyes said. “It’s very important that generation after generation, no matter how humble, the memories, the way people have survived thrives.”

Reyes credits the Carnegie Humanities Investment Fund (CHIF) of ASU — which awarded her Parker Sydnor Historic Log Cabin project a $60,000 grant — with helping to advance its community, regional and national impact.

“The CHIF grant is of utmost importance,” Reyes said. “It enabled the taking of the project to the next level and the raising of visibility for the historic preservation.”

As a faculty member of ASU’s School of Social TransformationThe School of Social Transformation is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. and Department of English, Reyes teaches courses on African and African-American studies, English and women and gender studies. She relishes the opportunity to use her log cabin project as a real-world teaching tool, even if the distance between ASU and Virginia doesn’t allow for her students to be there in-person.

An antique photograph of a tombstone carver
Tombstone carver and former slave Patrick Robert “Parker” Sydnor, whose inscriptions memorialized the lives of African Americans. This and the photo of historical marker courtesy of Angelita Reyes

“My students at ASU are involved in the project from the perspective of seeing how professors can take very academic subjects and bring them to the general public and make them usable. I’m taking history out of the classroom,” Reyes said.

“In general, people say history is a matter of knowing dates, wars, etc. What about microhistory? People who were not necessarily those big heroes or heroines throughout history? And that’s especially important in women and gender studies.”

As Reyes delved further into the history of the cabin and her own ancestral lineage, she discovered a genealogical and historical relationship to ASU: she shared ancestry with brothers Brad Sydnor and Doug Sydnor, both Scottsdale architects whose father, the late architect Reginald G. Sydnor, designed ASU’s H. B. Farmer Education Building.  

“It was a fascinating story to learn that Angelita and my roots go back approximately 350 years in Virginia,” said Doug Sydnor. “When Angelita, my brother and I met for the first time, of course we were literally face to face with our ancestral lineage. Since that time I have enjoyed getting to know Angelita, realized we have some long time mutual friends in the Phoenix area, and have learned a great deal more about this very special story.”

people unveiling highway marker
ASU professor Angelita Reyes (far right) unveils the Parker Sydnor Historic Log Cabin highway marker. Photo courtesy of Angelita Reyes


Doug Sydnor now serves on the board of directors for the Parker Sydnor project as an architect advising and facilitating the programming, site planning, design and construction of the cabin rehabilitation, and a future visitor’s center.

At the historical highway-marker dedication ceremony in October, Reyes had the pleasure of unveiling the marker.

“It is an honor to have your historical site designated with a highway marker,” said Reyes. “People will stop, pull over, read it. And it’s not a museum; it’s a living history center.”

To read more about the Parker Sydnor Historic Log Cabin Project, click here.

To view a Youtube video of the historical highway marker dedication ceremony, click here.


Top photo: The Parker Sydnor Log Cabin in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Photo courtesy Reyes and Reyes.