Share / Discuss

Cosmic Connector

He’s helping us ‘hear’ the universe

Peter Fritschel ’84 waited almost 30 years for a chirp. That chirp would turn out to be the sound of two massive black holes colliding, more than a billion years ago, so forcefully it created vibrations in the fabric of space-time that rippled across the universe until eventually reaching Earth—where they were first detected on Sept. 14, 2015.

Fritschel, senior research scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute and the chief detector scientist for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), has studied gravitational waves for decades—in fact, they were first detected at LIGO using technology and instruments he helped design. The detection validates a major implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and, according to Fritschel, “opens up a whole new way of looking at the universe.”

Until now, “everything we knew about the universe came from electromagnetic waves,” explains Fritschel, captured through telescopes and recorded as images. Gravitational waves allow us to “hear” the universe, and to detect objects scientists have only theorized about. Also, he adds eagerly, “there’s always the potential to measure something we didn’t expect or haven’t even predicted yet.”

Although most of Fritschel’s day-to-day work is getting the LIGO instruments he helped design “to work the way we think they should,” he was also selected to co-chair the six-person committee charged with writing the paper announcing the September 2015 “chirp” detection.

“Writing the paper really hearkened back to my liberal arts education,” says Fritschel. “I learned the science that got me to where I am today from Swarthmore, but I also learned how to write.”

And so, when LIGO’s collaborators were looking for a chief architect for the paper, Fritschel was a natural choice: “They knew I could represent the work—the science—and also write a good paper.”

+ READ the full paper: