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Gravitational Waves Discovery Opens New Doors, Physics Professor Says

Cal Poly professor Steven Drasco had a hunch that the physics community had stumbled across something big months ago. And on Thursday, Drasco, along with physicists all over the world, rejoiced in news that a foundational theory had finally been verified.

Computer simulation of star about to explode
This simulation, created by Cal Poly Physics Professor 
Steven Drasco, was used during a press conference held by
the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory and the
National Science Foundation on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2015
announcing the first observation of gravitational waves. 


For the first time, researchers on Sept. 14, 2015 detected ripples in space-time, which had been predicted by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity more than a century ago but never observed. The ripples, called gravitational waves, were created when two black holes crashed into one another and merged about one billion years ago. It was a foundational discovery, but researchers at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which recorded the sound of the waves, remained tight-lipped until Thursday’s announcement.

“I think you could argue it’s probably the biggest observation related to the field since general relativity was invented,” said Drasco, who has spent more than two decades researching gravitational waves, black holes, relativity and supernovae.

Drasco was virtually present at the announcement in the form of a computer model he and his collaborators created simulating the innermost portion of a star as it’s about to explode. LIGO and the National Science Foundation displayed his model at their joint press conference.

This video, created by Cal Poly Professor Steven Drasco, simulates the merger of one black hole,
about the same mass as our sun, with another much larger black hole, about 3,000 times
the mass of our sun. Drasco specializes in an area of astrophysics that deals with black holes
where one is much smaller than the other. 

Cal Poly had a couple of other reasons to join the celebration. Since 2014, the Cal Poly-managed STEM Teacher and Researcher Program, or STAR Program, has placed two students at the LIGO facility in Hanford, Wash. Drasco, too, has had one of his students at Cal Poly involved in summer research on LIGO.

Also, following the discovery, the scientists released their data and analysis as a Jupyter Notebook. Project Jupyter is led by Cal Poly and UC Berkeley and allows scientific computations to be more easily verified.

For many in the physics community, the discovery is, in many ways, life-changing.

“For a long time, there’s been this shroud over the community of people who work on gravitational waves. Will your field ever work? And now that’s gone,” Drasco said. “Thousands of people have been working on this for decades. It’s such vindication for this theory.” 

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