Celebrating a Decade of Discoveries

Ten years ago, Cal State Fullerton took a risk with gravitational-wave research. It has paid off tremendously.

Ten years ago, the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics, the Department of Physics, and Cal State Fullerton’s administration took a risk – one that has paid off tremendously, allowing faculty, staff, and students to play a major role in the first detection of gravitational waves and the exciting gravitational-wave research that has followed.

Predicted by Einstein in 1916 but not detected until nearly a century later, gravitational waves are waves in the fabric of space and time itself, rippling out from accelerated masses, shifting the distances between objects as they travel. The strongest signals measurable from Earth are from orbiting pairs of black holes or neutron stars – compact objects, more massive than the sun – zipping around each other tens to hundreds of times each second.

“When I was hired in 2010, the Advanced LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] detectors were not yet online, and the rates of gravitational-wave emission from black hole and neutron star sources had big error bars. The first observations of gravitational waves could have been imminent, or they could have still taken a decade or more!” says Josh Smith, Dan Black Director of the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Center for Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy (GWPAC) and professor of physics at NSM.

“But CSUF invested in the idea, and our team grew. Our center was quickly quite successful because of the great work being done by our students, together with Jocelyn Read, associate professor of physics; Geoffrey Lovelace, professor of physics; and Al Agnew, chair for the Department of Mathematics. We received strong NSF [National Science Foundation] support, and our students found good homes in Ph.D. programs and industry.”

Smith continues, “When nature was ready, GWPAC was there early enough and with a strong enough presence of faculty, staff, and students to play a major role in the first big discoveries made by Advanced LIGO in 2015 and 2017. This work magnified the opportunities for our students, as they were lifted on the tide of a growing field, and led to major support by Dan Black, Nancy Goodhue-McWilliams, and Lee and Nick Begovich.”

The most exciting part of GWPAC’s 10-year anniversary, says Smith, is seeing how the careers of the center’s alumni and former group members have progressed. Many of them are well on their way to becoming leaders in STEM, some still in gravitational-wave astronomy and physics, others in industry and education.

Lovelace, a GWPAC researcher, echoes that sentiment.

“We’ve had tremendous opportunities in GWPAC to play important roles in gravitational-wave research in an age of discovery. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done there. But what I’m most proud of is our students,” Lovelace says. “After making significant contributions to gravitational-wave research, they’re going on to do all kinds of amazing things, whether that’s pursuing doctoral research or a STEM career in industry.”

Lovelace says many students stay in touch with GWPAC faculty and staff through the center’s Slack workspace.

“Just recently, I messaged one of my former students, Haroon Khan, who now works at NASA Ames. He said, ‘It dawned upon me that I’ve been really lucky to have experienced two major space milestones in my short career. First gravitational waves and now the launch of Artemis I. So, thank you so much for opening doors for me!’” Lovelace says.

The Gravitational Pull of GWPAC

Two aspects that make GWPAC unique are the central role that undergraduate and master’s students play in the research, and the combination of theoretical astrophysics, numerical relativity, mathematical relativity, and experimental gravitational-wave optics research taking place there.

“Because gravitational waves are a new and growing field, with next-generation detectors being developed now for the 2030s, there is high demand for students and researchers with experience in the field. Our students have many strong opportunities for future studies or research,” Smith says. “And because we offer theoretical, computational, mathematical, and experimental research, there are opportunities for a variety of students that span a large space of gravitational-wave science. These two qualities allow our center to work hand in hand with some of the more traditional big names in gravitational-wave science.”

He says gravitational-wave science involves concepts, such as black holes and neutron stars, “that students naturally gravitate to, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

Research at GWPAC also involves high-performance computers, lasers, cryogenics, and advanced programming, which are all areas that attract students. Additionally, the center’s NSF funding and philanthropic support allow staff to support students with hourly pay, so they can work their way through college doing physics research that contributes to their career development.

“I don’t think the way our center works is a rarity at CSUF – I think it’s the Fullerton way. Especially at the College of NSM, externally supported faculty-student research is a central part of our ethos,” Smith says. “I am proud and amazed by the incredible research and scholarly activities being done by so many faculty, staff, and students at Cal State Fullerton. In my Astronomy 101 classes, I challenge my students to talk with their professors about what areas they are experts in – and to ask how they can get involved. I tell them about Nancy Segal’s twin studies on PBS, ‘Revisionist History’, and ‘Good Morning America’; about Matt Kirby, the rogue sinkhole hunter on National Geographic; and about Misty Paig-Tran’s studies of some of the largest and most interesting fish in the ocean.

Planned Giving Director Hart Roussel with Mrs. Lee Begovich.

NSM Dean Marie Johnson says it is evident how important student involvement is to GWPAC’s faculty and staff, and that the fact that even undergraduates are involved in these “breathtaking discoveries” is a real point of pride.

“The faculty at GWPAC work extremely well together, with no egos involved, and you really need that strong team approach to navigate all of this new science and guide student researchers,” Johnson says. “Students are drawn to the center because they can see students who look like them who have done this incredible research beside faculty and are now presenting at conferences and going off to good jobs or Ph.D. programs.”

GWPAC’s faculty and staff members include Smith, a gravitational-wave physics experimenter specializing in optics and characterization of the detectors and gravitational waves; Lovelace, a theoretical gravitational physicist specializing in modeling sources of gravitational waves, such as colliding black holes, using numerical relativity; Read, a theoretical astrophysicist with a specialty in modeling sources of gravitational waves, especially neutron star dynamics; Agnew, a mathematician focused on problems motivated by General Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory; and Joseph Areeda, a computational specialist who develops software for data analysis on the LIGO data grid. Lynn Washatka is the center’s administrative assistant and was the lead planner for its 10th anniversary events.

Lovelace says that while he used to think science was something you did by yourself, sitting in a room thinking deep thoughts about the universe, he learned long ago that the opposite was true.

“Sometimes you might be stuck for hours on something that a colleague can resolve in seconds, just from having a different perspective,” Lovelace explains. “Having faculty, staff, and students in three different areas of gravitational-wave physics often leads spontaneously to collaborations. For instance, I’m an expert in solving Einstein’s equations on a computer, but thanks to discussions with Josh, now I’m getting involved in using similar computational tools to help search for promising locations for Cosmic Explorer, the next gravitational-wave detector in the U.S.”

Support for the Future of Exploration

Support from both grants and philanthropy is incredibly impactful. It allows GWPAC to employ more undergraduate and master’s-level researchers and helps make it a destination for visiting scientists from around the world.

In 2022, the center received a $355,683 grant for 2022-2025 from the NSF, for “RUI: Advancing gravitational-wave optics to further explore the cosmos,” as well as a nearly $1.2 million, five-year grant from the NSF for “The CSUF-led partnership for inclusion of underrepresented groups in gravitational-wave astronomy.”

In 2020, the late Nick Begovich and his wife, Lee, committed to a planned gift to benefit gravitational-wave, engineering, and computer science faculty and student research. Nick Begovich had been collecting classic cars since the early 1950s and donated 14 cars – valued at $10 million – to the University, with $7 million directed specifically to support faculty and student gravitational-wave research in the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics. This included building a state-of-the-art laboratory and upgrading computational resources to allow students and faculty to continue playing a key role in future discoveries of gravitational waves. The center is named in the Begoviches’ honor.

“The GWPAC Lab in DBH-168 is now completed and the experiments are operational,” Smith says. “The cryostat and ultrahigh vacuum system are taking data regarding ice formation on cryogenic silicon. The oven is taking data on how optical coatings change when heated as high as 750 C. Our imaging scatterometer is investigating scatter from the latest coatings envisioned for gravitational-wave detectors. We are so grateful to Lee Begovich and the late Nick Begovich for their support to build this incredible lab.”

This new lab will allow Cal State Fullerton faculty, staff, and students to play an early and critical role in research and development for the Cosmic Explorer, the United States’ planned next-generation gravitational-wave observatory.

“Cosmic Explorer is a proposal for a new gravitational-wave detector in the United States,” Lovelace says. “It will use proven LIGO technology scaled up to arms five or 10 times longer. This will extend our gravitational-wave reach to the edge of the observable universe, letting us observe merging black holes and neutron stars throughout cosmic time, learn how the densest matter in the universe behaves in the most extreme environments, and explore fundamental questions about the nature of gravity.”

Smith says GWPAC faculty are currently submitting a collaborative grant to the NSF, entitled “Collaborative Research: Identifying and Evaluating Sites for Cosmic Explorer,” to identify locations in the United States that could potentially host the very large (20km and 40km) Cosmic Explorer Observatories. Smith, Lovelace, and Read are all part of the leadership structure for the Cosmic Explorer Project.

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