Although the solar eclipse in August received a great deal of national attention, few people were aware of an exceedingly larger astronomical event that occurred the same week.
The event was the long-expected detection of a neutron star merger, announced by members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory on Oct. 16.
Assistant Professor of Physics and LIGO member Ryan Lang attended the press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Lang said it was exciting to be a part of the discovery, which one LIGO member referred to as the “holy grail of astrophysics.”
“I think I kind of teared up a little bit,” Lang said. “I was just like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’”
Many scientists, according to Lang, are calling the Aug. 17 event “one of the most significant astronomical discoveries ever,” because the collision produced light waves in addition to gravitational waves. The resulting plethora of data allows scientists to learn more about how the universe is expanding, and how some of the Earth’s heavier elements such as gold, silver, platinum, and uranium may have been formed by an ancient, nearby neutron star collision.
“It literally and figuratively is a gold mine of stuff,” Lang said. “People are going to be studying this for a long time.”
Neutron stars are incredibly dense objects, containing the mass of Mount Everest in the size of a teaspoon, and range from 12 to 15 miles across. Although LIGO’s first four detections involved gravitational waves emitted from black hole collisions, scientists had expected this fifth detection for a much longer time.
“People started going: ‘Well, what about the neutron stars? You always promised us neutron stars,’” Lang said. “It wasn’t inconsistent yet that we hadn’t seen any; if we had gone another 10 years and didn’t see any, then it would be. But it’s still nice to just get it in the bag.”
Lang said the conference gave him the opportunity to reconnect with several other LIGO members with whom he had worked in the past.
“It’s always good to see people in person,” Lang said. “It kind of revitalizes you.”
Around 40 students celebrated LIGO’s recent Nobel Prize award and the neutron star discovery on Oct. 19 in the physics department hallway. Professor of Physics Ken Hayes organized the campus-wide gathering, complete with balloons, cake, and “neutron star punch.”
Junior Laura Salo said she looked up the announcement online right after her morning class and was “very excited” to hear about the neutron star discovery.
“I ran back down here to learn more, and on my way I ran into my friend who said that I spoke nonsense for about a minute because I was so excited, just blabbering on about neutron stars, and she didn’t understand a word of what I was saying,” Salo said.
Sophomore mathematics major Jadon Lippincott became a LIGO member at the beginning of the school year and currently assists Lang with data analysis.
“I think it’s pretty awesome, as an undergrad, as a sophomore in college, to get to do something like this,” he said.
Sophomore and president of the astronomy club Chris Scheithauer said the discovery has drummed up a lot of interest in physics and astronomy on campus.
“A lot of people would not expect a sort of small, rural school like Hillsdale College, especially one that is humanities-focused, to be involved in something like this,” he said. “So it’s sort of a great moment not only for science but I think also for the college in particular.”