Physics doctoral candidate Heather Fong on the discovery of gravitational waves.
In Grade 6, my teacher gave us an astronomy assignment and I started reading about stars and galaxies, what they’re made of, the legends of the constellations, learning new vocabulary like supernova, which is an explosion of a dying star.
In high school, I devoured every astronomy documentary I could find, including ones narrated by Morgan Freeman.
I took my first course in astrophysics in my second year of undergrad, and I fell in love with the images from the Hubble Space Telescope.
In my third year of undergrad, I attended the Canadian Astronomical Society Conference and saw a presentation on LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, and I learned about gravitational waves for the first time. It was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. Ripples in the fabric of space-time. It gave me goosebumps.
The University of Toronto is the only university in Canada doing research on LIGO so I knew I had to come here for my graduate work.
I joined the LIGO team in August 2015. We expected to spend months, maybe years, refining our work so that we might eventually detect gravitational waves. We made our first detection within the first week.
Heather Fong’s doctoral research has been supported by the E.F. Burton Fellowship in Physics.
Gravitational wave detection came at around 6 am Eastern Standard Time on September 14, 2015. It was such a powerful signal we didn’t think it could be real. We spent a lot of time analyzing and examining it, thinking it could have been a false signal put into the data as a test.
But it really was the collision between two black holes.
It was the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves, something Einstein only theorized about in 1916. There we were, 99 years later and we have our first direct evidence that black holes actually exist.
I compare it to when Galileo looked through a telescope and saw the moons of Jupiter. For the next 400 years, we learned to see farther and more clearly with electromagnetic light. LIGO is a different kind of observation, one based not on light but on gravitational waves, and it opens up a whole new way of exploring the universe.
My role was to calculate estimates of how many binary black holes we can expect to observe.
I was just in Japan for the summer doing research at the University of Tokyo with Professor Kipp Cannon. He was the person who gave the presentation at the conference about LIGO that first excited me about gravitational waves.
Heather Fong is a PhD candidate in physics. Photo: Jackie Shapiro