Catching Cataclysms in the Universe

July 9, 2019

SupernovaThroughout the universe, black holes are colliding and stars are erupting into supernovas—and physics major Cassady Smith ’20 is helping make sure humanity doesn’t miss them.

To observe these cataclysmic events in the fabric of space-time, scientists used to work with almost strictly electromagnetic radiation data. But more recently, astrophysicists have also learned how to detect gravitational waves produced by these supremely massive events. This information is a new, crucial way of studying cosmic cataclysms, providing a more complete view of the wonders of space.

Large laser interferometers use mirrors to detect these waves as they travel through the universe, but they could use more fine-tuning—very fine-tuning. Imagine trying to catch a space-time distortion smaller than the nucleus of an atom, and it’s traveling at the speed of light. That’s what these instruments are designed to do. So Smith joined a research team at the University of Glasgow for the summer to upgrade their sensitivity.

“With higher sensitivity, we can detect more events and learn more about our universe,” she said. Her work will be used for upgrades at a large, national observatory back in the United States, as well as for the Einstein Telescope in Europe. “Not only am I contributing at Glasgow, but I'm also contributing to a ground-breaking international experiment that's on the forefront of science.”

Even though Smith is the only undergraduate surrounded by mostly Ph.D. students, she feels like an integral part of the team. She has many responsibilities in the lab, including working with liquid nitrogen and liquid helium to take measurements at more than 450 degrees below zero.

When she’s not in the lab, spending the summer in Scotland has been incredible, Smith said. She’s immersed in history and beauty: the University of Glasgow is older than the United States by more than 200 years, and on weekends she takes trains to storied castles and verdant hills.

“Coming into the REU, I hoped to gain more hands-on lab experience in experimental physics. I can most definitely say I've gotten that experience with all of the work I've done so far,” Smith said. “Once I'm finished, I hope that my experiences here will make me a valuable member of another team either in graduate school or where I end up working.”

Learn more about Whittier College's physics department and research opportunities like these.