Nobel Prize makes waves at home

24 October 2017

Associate Professor Renate Meyer
Associate Professor Renate Meyer

Associate Professor Renate Meyer wasn’t entirely surprised when the Nobel Prize for Physics went to three members of the team that played a major role in the observation of gravitational waves, announced last year. Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne were this month given the prestigious award “for decisive contributions to the LIGO (laser interferometer gravitational wave observatory) detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.

“I think everybody really expected the Nobel Prize in Physics to be awarded for the detection of gravitational waves – for decades, it has been something of a scientific Holy Grail,” says Renate, who, in the 1990s, was one of the researchers who laid the foundations for the sophisticated statistical data-analysis strategies essential to the research. Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and the late Ron Drever were the architects of the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in 1975, joined in 1994 by Barry Barish as leader of the observatory and the worldwide LIGO Scientific Collaboration.

Although Renate doesn’t know the winners personally, her close collaborator in that foundational 1990s work does. Nelson Christensen, a former Department of Physics staff member, did his PhD under Rainer Weiss, and is one of more than 1000 physicists and engineers in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. Nelson and Renate co-supervised four students who worked on development of statistical methods for estimating the parameters of the gravitational wave signals, and all four continued their work overseas: Richard Umstaetter at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Lab; Christian Roever at the Albert-Einstein-Institute in Germany; Asad Ali, now Assistant Professor at the Institute of Space Technology in his home country Pakistan; and Matthew Edwards, who is about to start a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Edinburgh, working on noise modelling for the planned space-based laser interferometer called LISA.

Renate, who is German but has lived in New Zealand for many years, is proud to be part of such a successful academic family: “In Germany, we call the PhD supervisor our 'Doktorvater' which would make the four PhD students who were jointly supervised by Nelson and me the 'doctor-grandsons' of a Nobel prize winner. That’s pretty cool.”

Several weeks after the Nobel win, LIGO-Virgo collaboration scientists announced that that they had measured for the first time the violent death spiral of two dense neutron stars via gravitational waves. Renate says this ushers in “a truly exciting new era for astrophysics with the promise of many more discoveries to be made”. She adds, “As a statistician, you get to play in everyone’s backyard, as the American mathematician John Tukey once said. The astrophysicists’ backyard is one of the most exciting and adventurous places to be, and will be for some time.”