WMU physics grad tracking gravitational wave event from Australia

contact: Cheryl Roland
| WMU News
Head-and-shoulders photo of Ian Brown in a suit and tie.

Ian Brown

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A recent Western Michigan University graduate is playing an important role as scientists around the world are chronicling, for the first time, what happens when two neutron stars collide.

Ian Brown, a 2016 WMU alumnus and current graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been a participant on one of the international observational teams, working at a radio telescope array in Australia to track the phenomenon, known as a kilonova. The event was first detected in mid-August. In simultaneous announcements Oct. 16 in Europe and the United States, the international teams unveiled visual observations and information on the gravitational waves they've detected. Their announcements have generated headlines worldwide.

Previously and only very recently, scientists had, according to Science magazine, only sensed such occurrences from the gravitational waves they had been able to measure. This time, the "celestial light show" also allowed them to observe the event across the electromagnetic (light) spectrum.

"Just as physicists had predicted," according to the publication, "the unprecedented view of the cosmic cataclysm—in which two superdense neutron stars spiraled into each other—brought with it a cornucopia of insights, each of which by itself would count as a major scientific advance."

A Process that produces gold and silver

Image simulating the collision of two neutron stars: Two orange "balls" are shown as they begin to collide and strip off each other's molten-red outer gases.

Simulation showing two neutron stars colliding and forming a black hole (Image by NASA Goddard/Albert Einstein Institute)

The New York Times characterized the collision of the two dead stars as an example of "the violent process by which most of the gold and silver in the universe was created." Astronomers have long suspected that such explosions as the one now being studied produced many of the heavier elements in the universe, including precious metals like gold, silver and uranium.

The collision of two neutron stars in a galaxy 130 million light years away is providing scientists on Earth a front row seat to document the event. For the first time, scientists have been able to simultaneously sense the collision in gravitational waves and observe the light generated by the calamity through dozens of ground-based optical and radio telescopes and several U.S. and European orbiting observatories in space.

The extent of the teams' discoveries was unveiled this week when representatives from the U.S.'s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO, joined with Europe's Virgo gravitational-wave observatory, and a sampling of researchers from 70 other observatories to share their new findings during a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Brown's role

Ian Brown majored in physics at WMU and was named a Presidential Scholar in his discipline—the highest honor a WMU undergraduate can earn. Shortly after the international announcement, Brown emailed his mentors in the Department of Physics, Drs. Clement Burns, Paul Pancella and Lisa Paulius, to let them know the role he has played in the achievement and to thank them for their support. Brown had been under a gag order about the kilonova work until the news was revealed.

"It is partly due to your recommendations that I was in the right place at the right time to be included in this amazing astronomical event," Brown wrote to them. "...I have to say, given the current events, grad school is turning out a lot more fun that I thought it would be."

Brown is working at the Murchison Widefield (Radio Telescope) Array in Western Australia. His name appears as a contributor on two scientific papers that have resulted from the work in observing the event. He is a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin's Leonard E. Parker Center for Gravitation, Cosmology and Astrophysics.

He is originally from Baroda, Michigan, and attended Lakeshore High School in Stevensville. He began his college studies, then left to join the workforce for 13 years. Returning to finish his degree at WMU, he majored in physics with an electrical engineering option. His undergraduate research into the cosmic microwave background led to an interest in the areas of space-time geometry and the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

More about kilonovas

For more information about the scientific breakthrough, read a full account of the news from Science and the New York Times at bit.ly/2gKwflW and nyti.ms/2ifBz4D.

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