The dawn of gravitational wave astronomy

The first detection of gravitational waves announced earlier this year by the LIGO-Virgo Team has quickly been honoured with many of the most prestigious prizes in physics and science and is widely regarded as one of the scientific breakthroughs of the decade. 

At the University of Birmingham, we have long operated at the cutting edge of science and have now invested £6 million in a new Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy, recognising the great opportunities in this exciting new field of science. 

Our institute's launch coincided with further recognition of Birmingham's place on the front line of science, with this week witnessing the awarding of 2016's Nobel Prize in Physics to three British scientists for their work in topological properties of matter. Two of this illustrious trio - Professors David Thouless and Mike Kosterlitz - are former University of Birmingham academics. Alongside this, Professor Sir Fraser Stoddart, former Head of School of Chemistry, is one of the three joint winners of this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work into the design and synthesis of molecular machines. 

But what is it that makes this detection of gravitational wave, using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Oberservatories (LIGO) instruments in Louisiana and Washington, so important and why did this scientific achievement resonate so much with an audience outside of science?

Gravitational waves are distortions in space and time itself that are produced by violent events in our Universe. According to Einstein's theory of gravity, such waves were generated by the Big Bang at the very beginning of our Universe, and are creating by colliding compact objects such as black holes and neutron stars, and by star explosions. By measuring these waves we can learn about these events and the Universe as a whole: we can do astronomy but in a transformative new way. 

Astronomy is a fundamental science. It seeks to answer fundamental questions, for example, what is the shape and evolution of the Universe, where do planets and stars come from and how has everything evolved from the very beginning of time? By studying the night sky with telescopes, we have found answers and can study new worlds. But much more remains hidden and new questions have arisen, sometimes literally in dark places into which we cannot probe using ordinary telescopes. 

Gravitational waves are a completely different kind of radiation, emitted by dark objects and not absorbed by gas or dust in-between stars. With gravitational wave detectors we can now pierce the veil that obscures many fascination cosmic objects. We have already discovered the first pair of black holes and as the detectors become better and better we will make many more exciting discoveries.

We have just had the first glimpse of the gravitational wave sky. To go beyond that we will improve the instruments that can measure these waves, the modeling of the complex physical processes that generate them, and the techniques to identify these cosmic signals in the data. By making use of the interaction of light and matter at the quantum level, we will develop new laser detectors with record-breaking sensitivity, on the ground and in space.

Gravitational wave astronomy emerges at the intersection of many research areas, such as optics, metrology, interferometry, quantum macroscopic systems, big-data and theoretical physics. By successfully bringing together expertise for a common purpose, we can push the boundaries of knowledge at the most fundamental level. The world-wide scientific community has recognised the huge and transformational potential inherent in this new area, from fundamental physics to transfer technology, for wider impact and the training of the new generations in STEM subjects through cutting-edge research.

Looking to the future, our new Gravitational Wave Institute aims to gather experts from many different research fields and to to strengthen the links across research groups and technology centres to shape the future of astronomy and fundemental physics. The first detection of a gravitational wave was just the beginning; we have opened a new window to the Universe. From now on we will detect many gravitational waves, but what we are going to discover next is anybody's guess. Expect more news and big surprises!

Professor Andreas Freise and Professor Alberto Vecchio 

School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham