Lecture series to examine growing research on gravitational waves

Compton Lectures to offer public glimpse into pioneering UChicago research

On Sept. 14, 2015, University of Chicago scientists were part of the international team to make the first direct detection of ripples in the fabric of space-time from the collision of two black holes 1.4 billion light years away.

Predicted by Albert Einstein in the early 20th century, these ripples, called gravitational waves, are now making some of the biggest waves in science. They allow astrophysicists to observe phenomena across the universe—ranging from black holes to supernovae.

Gravitational waves will be the focus of a free UChicago lecture series this fall aimed at making the physical sciences accessible to the public. Sponsored by the Enrico Fermi Institute, the Arthur Holly Compton Lectures honor the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who led the pioneering 1942 UChicago experiment that produced the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction.

Reed Essick, a postdoctoral fellow at UChicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, will lead the lectures. Essick specializes in gravitational waves and their detection by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO); his work focuses on interpreting the signals from the LIGO detectors, translating their blips and dips into physical events such as the merging of stars.

In the lectures, Essick hopes to provide a glimpse into humankind’s relatively short but prolific history of gravitational wave detection. His talks will span the basic theory of general relativity and gravity, to how the LIGO detectors work, to the latest observations that keep him up at night.

“Gravitational waves present a completely new way of seeing the universe, analogous to how Galileo made the first telescope and observed Jupiter’s moons,” Essick said. “From his observations, Galileo deduced that Earth orbits the sun instead of the other way around. Gravitational waves, like the telescope, will provide a radically different perspective of how the universe works.”

The lectures will be held at 11 a.m. Saturdays from Sept. 28 to Nov. 23 in Lecture Hall 106 at the Kersten Physics Teaching Center.