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Assistant Pro­fessor of Physics Ryan Lang attended the LIGO press con­ference that announced the detection of a neutron star merger. Ryan Lang | Courtesy

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.”