Gravitational waves: talk to a scientist behind the discovery

Scientific history was made in February when the LIGO team announced the discovery of gravitational waves.

Martin Hendry is part of the team that made this breakthrough and he'll be joining The Student Room on Tuesday 22 March to answer your questions.

Read Martin's message below and post your questions for him in the comments now!

Greetings from Pasadena, home of the California Institute of Technology, where the guys from “The Big Bang Theory” work.

Caltech is one of the lead US institutions on a truly global scientific project of more than 1,000 scientists: LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory). The project uses the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built, able to measure tiny distortions in space less than a million millionth the width of a human hair.

LIGO was a huge news story in February when we reported the first ever detection of gravitational waves, from the collision of two massive black holes more than a billion light years from the Earth. It's a discovery that has been hailed as the scientific breakthrough of the century. 

gravitational waves

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself, and were predicted by Albert Einstein exactly 100 years ago. It’s taken us until now to detect them because, by the time they reach the Earth, they are incredibly weak. 

But now that we have found them, gravitational waves open up for us a whole new way of exploring the universe – from violent events like exploding stars or colliding black holes, perhaps even the Big Bang itself. I think even Sheldon Cooper would be impressed by that!

A lot of the scientists involved in the LIGO project (including me) work at the University of Glasgow, and our team helped to pioneer the breakthrough technology that made this incredibly sensitive measurement possible. You can find out lots more about LIGO and gravitational waves on the university’s news pages or on our LIGO website

This week I’m in Pasadena for a meeting of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, as we analyse more data from the detectors – hoping to find more gravitational wave signals. Watch this space (or should that be watch this space-time?!) for more news on that coming soon…

So how did I get to where I am now? Well it all started with a love of space and astronomy when I was young. I was encouraged by lots of people along the way – family, friends, great teachers – to study science at school, and I was already pretty sure by midway through high school that astrophysics was the path I wanted to follow. But I did keep my options quite open – taking highers in English, French and Latin as well as maths, physics and chemistry. 

Then it was off to the University of Glasgow in the mid-1980s where I studied Maths, Physics and Astronomy – graduating in 1988 and then winning a scholarship for a PhD in astrophysics, also at Glasgow, which I did between 1988 and 1992. 

A PhD is a bit different from a first degree at university, because you get to work much more independently and basically tackle a problem that hasn’t been solved before. 

In my case it was about developing better ways to work out the distances to remote galaxies, which involved learning a lot about statistics and probability and developing data skills that could be applied in all sorts of other fields too. 


But mainly I loved it because I got to study things that happened “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” – trying to answer the really big questions about our universe: how it began, how it’s got to look the way it does today, basically all the stuff they sing about in the Big Bang Theory theme song!

After I finished my PhD I worked in a few different universities as what we call a “postdoctoral researcher”, employed to study a particular theme or topic – in my case more of those same questions about galaxies and the fate of the universe. 

Then in 1996 I got the chance to come back to Glasgow and carry on my research here. In 1998 I was appointed to a lectureship in Physics and Astronomy at Glasgow – meaning that I didn’t just do research but contributed to teaching students too – and I’ve been here ever since. I was promoted to Professor in 2011 and became Head of Physics and Astronomy in 2012.

There are many aspects of my job that are challenging and exciting, and you never quite know what each new day will bring, but the chance to do something that I really love – and perhaps to find out some important new things about the universe at the same time – is a real privilege, and something I’m grateful for every day. 

But it all started with “one small step for a man”: coming to the University of Glasgow to study science.

Martin Hendry will be joining us on Tuesday 22 March to answer your questions about the LIGO project, gravitational waves and all things physics. Add your question for him in the comments below!