Associate Professor Renate Meyer: Helping to create waves of change

12 February 2016
Associate Professor Renate Meyer

When US-based researchers announced on Friday that they that they had detected gravitational waves, Renate Meyer was up at 4.30am to watch the live broadcast online from her home in Auckland. The Department of Statistics Associate Professor wouldn’t have missed it – in the late 1990s, she was one of the researchers who laid the foundations for the sophisticated statistical data analysis strategies essential to the research.

Gravitational waves are distortions or ‘ripples’ in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the distant universe arriving at Earth. When researchers from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in the US made their announcement, they confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1916 general theory of relativity and opened an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

“It was a truly momentous occasion,” says Renate, an Associate Professor in the Department of Statistics. “What would be more fitting to mark the centennial of the general theory of relativity?”

In the 1990s, Associate Professor Meyer and physicist colleague Nelson Christensen, now at Carleton College, Minnesota, developed techniques using Markov Chain Monte Carlo methods – a type of algorithm – to decipher the highly complex signals captured by the detectors. Essentially, she says, these techniques help researchers extract the signal from statistical “noise”. “The signals are so tiny and extremely hard to detect,” she says.

Their insights were adopted by the LIGO consortium, and have since been built on by the duo, their students, and by researchers all over the world. Associate Professor Meyer held a Marsden research grant from 2003-2006 to further develop the techniques, and brought a group of talented postgraduate students on board to help.

She says the discovery of gravitational waves is “stunning”, adding that “it’s great to see the data analysis methods we initiated prove so useful.”

Physicists have concluded that the detected gravitational waves were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole. This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed.