Australia needs gravity-wave detector to boost scientific standing, says professor

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Australia needs gravity-wave detector to boost scientific standing, says professor

By Stuart Layt

An internationally renowned physicist is calling for Australia to take its place among the heavyweights of world science by building a cutting-edge gravity wave detector in our backyard.

Distinguished professor Susan Scott was recently elected a fellow of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation (ISGRG) – the first Australian to ever be elected to the organisation.

Distinguished professor Susan Scott says Australia should have a gravity wave detector.

Distinguished professor Susan Scott says Australia should have a gravity wave detector.Credit:Tracey Nearmy/ANU

ISGRG membership, which comprises only about 50 fellows at any one time, has previously included renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and Nobel Laureates Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne.

The appointment is recognition that Scott is a world leader in her field, which has been borne out by her extraordinary work up to and including her contribution in 2015 to a project that detected gravitational waves for the first time.

Predicted by none other than iconic scientist Albert Einstein as part of his theory of general relativity, the researchers proved that collisions of massive objects like black holes would send ripples out into the fabric of spacetime itself.

The collaboration of more than 1000 scientists detected these ripples by using a gravitational wave detector – an L-shaped facility where each arm is four kilometres long.

Lasers are shone down the arms onto mirrors, and if the beam is disrupted by even a tiny amount, down to one-thousandth the width of a proton, the detector registers it.

The Australian National University professor and her colleagues at OzGrav worked with the US-based LIGO detector for that work, however there are similar detectors in Europe and Japan, and one is being constructed in India.

Scott said with so much work being done in the field by Australian scientists, the country should have a gravitational detector of its own.

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“We have already in Australia a lot of very talented research personnel who could work on the instruments. We have the expertise to build one here in Australia,” she said.

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“We’re already a partner with LIGO, but to really be a key player going forward, we really need to have this detector in Australia and step up to play that major role.”

Because the detectors are so sensitive, measures need to be in place to reduce interference from outside. In the case of the Japanese detector, it is built under a mountain to stop the region’s geological unpredictability.

Australia, which is geologically very stable compared to other parts of the world, fits the bill perfectly in that regard, but Scott said it was another prominent fact about our geography that also made Australia an ideal spot for a new detector.

“All of the gravitational detectors are currently in the northern hemisphere, and obviously we would get much better localisation of where the waves are coming from in the universe if there was one down here,” she said.

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“So we’re a great location to have one to complete the international network.”

Building a third-generation gravitational detector would cost in the range of $200 million, which Scott argues isn’t a massive amount in the scheme of things, especially when at least some of the cost could be shared by international research bodies.

In the meantime, Scott herself is continuing her research into the nature of the universe, searching for the gravitational waves produced by neutron stars.

She says she’s been greatly honoured by her recent election to ISGRG, and she wants to use her position to promote the fantastic science being done in Australia across all fields of knowledge, as well as inspire the next generation to take up a career in STEM.

“We are increasingly seen as a scientific nation, and I think Australia’s future lies in increasing the pathways for young people into STEM,” she said.

“I feel that in my career, I’ve had to break through a number of glass ceilings, and I hope I can be a role model for all young people – but especially young girls – to think about entering science fields, because now there really is a way for them.”

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