The office of Professor Stephen Taylor at Vanderbilt University is littered with whiteboards full of complex equations.
He is often seen sitting at his desk with distant eyes, contemplating one of the fundamental secrets of the universe.
“It’s like discovering a new sensation,” Taylor said of his work on gravitational waves.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Taylor has been a physicist for the past 15 years and says he always wanted to study astrophysics. He attended Oxford and Cambridge Universities and completed postdoctoral studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Caltech before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt University in 2019.
APSU Monday:Certification, Chairs, New Plants, Space Story
Take back the trail:Mountain bike enthusiast rejuvenates and takes ownership of Clarksville Park
“Vanderbilt had a reputation for going beyond its weight in gravitational waves and astrophysics in general,” says Taylor. “We were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time to study gravitational waves.”
Gravitational waves are like ripples in a pond that can travel throughout the universe.
They can appear anywhere, but they’re easiest to detect by observing supermassive objects like black holes, explains Taylor.
In many ways, gravitational waves are key to studying the universe.
Two black holes orbiting each other emit a large amount of gravitational waves. It can also provide precise information about the state of the universe a fraction of a second after the Big Bang.
To detect them, Taylor and his team use the North American Gravitational Wave Nanohertz Observatory, a series of radio telescopes across the United States.
The telescope looks for low-frequency gravitational waves that arise from supermassive black holes and can squeeze and stretch the spaces between objects in the universe.
“It’s more like listening to the universe murmur than looking at it,” Taylor said.
building blocks of reality
To detect changes in the universe due to gravitational waves, observatories monitor pulsars, or dense neutron stars the size of cities that contain as much matter as the sun.
“A teaspoon of neutron star matter weighs as much as the Empire State Building,” said Taylor.
Pulsars, like lighthouses in space, emit beams of radiation that can be seen from Earth at regular intervals.
If light takes longer than expected to reach Earth, it means that gravitational waves have distorted and stretched the space between Earth and the pulsar. Less time means compacted space.
Taylor’s research includes astrophysicist Professor Jessie Runnoe and graduate student Kyle Gersbach.
Runnoe studies light emitted from a particular supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy.
Runnoe and Taylor hope to paint a more complete picture of the universe by combining light and gravitational observations.
“We expect to be able to determine whether we have detected gravitational waves in about 18 months,” Taylor said.
Gersbach believes the research will change the way people look at astronomy.
“This brand new gravitational wave medium has great potential, and seeing other scientists excited made me just as excited,” he said.
The study of gravitational waves also has more practical applications.
Taylor and Runnoe’s team have developed a complex set of statistical data that can be applied across a variety of industries. GPS technology, cell phone microchips, and data analytics are just a few of the reasons why this research is important.
There is also an element of human curiosity.
“I think of it like art,” Runnoe said of gravitational waves. “Why is art important? Art is important because we are human and we appreciate beauty.”