Contributions of RIT Researchers Featured in Astronomy

Scientific team recognized for merging black holes on a supercomputer




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The cover story of the September issue of Astronomy magazine features the work of Rochester Institute of Technology researchers renowned for successfully simulating one of the first collisions of black holes on a supercomputer, solving Einstein’s equations of general relativity.

“How Astronomers Cracked the Einstein Code,” by Adam Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, explains the significance of the groundbreaking research conducted by Manuela Campanelli and her team. Their work simulated gravitational waves on supercomputers from colliding black holes and solved Einstein’s equations of general relativity—a computational feat. The article uses visualizations produced by Hans-Peter Bischof, RIT associate professor of computer science, to illustrate what happens when black holes collide.

Campanelli, director of RIT’s Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation, and her team made their research breakthrough in 2005, while at the University of Texas at Brownsville. Campanelli, Carlos Lousto and Yosef Zlochower, professors in RIT’s School of Mathematical Sciences, caused an international stir in 2005 when they merged two black holes on a supercomputer following Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The team had spent three years working on the 10 interrelated equations for strong field gravity that comprise Einstein’s famous theory connecting matter, space and time. The group later joined RIT in 2007 to form the Center for Computational Relativity and Gravitation. Last winter, they successfully merged three black holes for the first time.

The growing number of RIT scientists associated with the center includes Bischof, David Merritt, professor of physics, Josh Faber and John Whelan, both professors in the School of Mathematical Sciences, and post-doctoral fellows Hiroyuki Nakano, Bruno Mundim and Alessia Gualandris. Whelan, who will join RIT in September, chairs a review committee for the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration.

RIT was recently invited to join the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes more than 600 members and 50 institutions across the world. LIGO is the ground-based detector designed to measure the detailed form of gravitational waves from the merger of two black holes in space.

Scientists expect to measure actual gravity waves within the next decade—a discovery that would likely lead to a Nobel Prize in Physics. Simulations generated by the kind of research produced by Campanelli’s team will help confirm the detection of gravitational waves coming from space.

The ability to simulate gravity waves has hinged for decades on a fresh approach to solving Einstein’s equations and the sheer computer power to simulate these waves. Einstein predicted the collision of huge masses, such as black holes or neutron stars, would produce gravity waves. Scientists need simulated gravity waves to know what to look for when assessing the “noise” the LIGO detector pulls down from space.

For some astrophysicists, the quest to observe gravity waves is akin to the fabled pursuit of the Holy Grail. Gravitational waves pass through matter that blocks light, or electro-magnetic radiation, and could give scientists a new perspective on the beginning of the universe. Tracing gravity waves back in time could lead them to the other side of the Big Bang.

“It’s very timely research because it’s on the verge of discovery,” Campanelli says. “And what we do is critical for this discovery to happen. We expect this area to keep expanding because the detection of gravitational waves will be the birth of gravitational wave astronomy, a new kind of astronomy.”

Note: RIT scientist Manuela Campanelli narrates an animation of a black hole collision for Astronomy.com available at http://ccrg.rit.edu/news/2008/astronomy-web-extras.