A&S Physicist Receives NSF Grant to Improve Analysis of Gravitational Wave Data


Artistic representation of a neutron star merger. (Courtesy: NSF LIGO; Sonoma State University; A. Simonnet)

In 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) observed the first detection of gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the cataclysmic collision of two black holes. Syracuse University’s Gravitational Wave Group played a leading role in this monumental discovery that confirmed a major prediction from Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Since that first discovery, LIGO has detected dozens of additional black hole collisions and observed the collision of two neutron stars, seeing the universe build gold and platinum. Today, physicists at the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S) are working on the design of Cosmic Explorer: a next-generation gravitational-wave observatory capable of seeing much farther into the Universe and observing with precision higher than ever.

Duncan Brown

Duncan Brown

Among those physicists is Duncan Brown, a Charles Brightman endowed professor of physics and vice president for research at Syracuse University. Brown recently received a $210,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop advanced algorithms and computational techniques to explore how astrophysical information can be extracted from signal-rich data from future detectors.

Gravitational waves are produced by the most violent and energetic processes in the universe. When two black holes collide or massive stars explode at the end of their lives, they create ripples in spacetime that can be observed using gravitational wave detectors. Cosmic Explorer will be sensitive enough to study the collisions of the remnants of the first stars that formed in the universe. But to meet the target build date of the mid-2030s, investments in technology development are needed now.

Brown will use NSF funding to develop new algorithms to detect signals with Cosmic Explorer and understand the astrophysics encoded in the observed waves. This research will also help to estimate the computing resources needed to fully exploit the scientific potential of next-generation detectors, as well as to form a community of researchers ready to explore the universe in this new observation window.

“Gravitational wave astronomy is an amazing field,” says Brown. “With Cosmic Explorer, humanity will go from having its first glimpse of the sky of gravitational waves to detecting every black hole merger in the universe in a single human lifetime. We need to start preparing now for the exciting data deluge that Cosmic Explorer will bring.

Through the educational component of this grant, undergraduate and graduate students in the A&S Department of Physics will learn computational skills that will advance the competitiveness of America’s STEM workforce. This award will also support an effort to bring high-performance computing to rural Pennsylvania school districts and promote STEM education in K-12 schools.