10:30AM (EST) on February 11, 2016: We gathered into one of the conference rooms in the JHU Physics and Astronomy Department to stream the National Science Foundation Press release from the LIGO collaboration. Over the last week the whole community has been hearing rumors of a big announcement from LIGO, the instrument designed to measure distortions of spacetime due to gravitational waves. At the start David Reitze announced that they had indeed detected the long sought after gravitational waves!
Physicists all the way back to Einstein have considered the existence of gravitational waves and merging black holes became a strong candidate for their production — except that merging black holes had never been observed, until now. Gabriela Gonzalez, Spokesperson for the LIGO science team, took the podium to describe the first gravitational wave detection at LIGO — 29 and 36 solar mass black holes merged to produce a 62 mass black hole. 3 solar masses were radiated away.
At 11am EST Astronomy Picture of the Day updated with a related image representing the numerical simulations matching the signal measured at the two LIGO sites (which are over 2000 miles apart):
The excitement among the team members was obvious. Decades of work and research (and money) have gone into the development of LIGO. NSF director France Córdova gently joked about the relief of institutions like the NSF that have supported this long-term project for many years to see a positive detection.
Locally, it was exciting to see a mix of astronomers and particle physicists gather together to listen in, chew on some bagels, and share reactions. I think this press release reflects one of my favorite parts of the academic world and one the reasons I decided to join it — a shared excitement for new discoveries. Somewhat regardless of individual science interests, everyone is talking about it! And those working more directly on the subject are happy to elaborate and engage with colleagues. Many feel that in time, this will be considered an important historical event.