Former U.P. resident helps detect colliding black holes in space

Alexander Nitz still feels a lot of pride in his Michigan roots — ask any of his friends and fellow physicists at the Albert Einstein Institute in Hannover, Germany, where he's a postdoctoral research fellow and, from the confines of Earth, something of a space pioneer.

"I'm always selling Michigan," he said. "I'm convincing a bunch of German friends to go and visit."

A former resident of Houghton in the Upper Peninsula and a former University of Michigan undergraduate student, Nitz, 29, is a key part of a team providing new insights into some of the most violent, powerful events in the universe, happening incredibly far away — the collision and merging of two black holes.

It was a quick, upturning, electronic-sounding little chirp. But with that fleeting noise, detected by Nitz and other team members on Jan. 4 using two massive, super-sensitive, L-shaped antennae in Washington state and Louisiana, physicists got their latest glimpse of two black holes spiraling together and crashing into one, 3 billion light-years away. A light year is about 5.88 trillion miles.

That observation, published June 1 in the journal Physical Review Letters, is the third time in less than two years that researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO, pinpointed gravitational waves — like ripples from a rock being thrown into a pond, traveling through space-time — from black holes merging.

"What's going on is the dawn of a new kind of astronomy," Nitz said.

"For several hundred years now, we have been able to study the universe by what we can see with our eyes, what we can detect of the light with our instruments. But that doesn't tell the whole story. 

"If using a telescope is seeing with your eyes, what LIGO is able to do is allow us to hear the universe."

Black holes are still-mysterious regions of space with gravitational pulls so intense, light cannot escape them. And two of them colliding produces an almost incomprehensible amount of energy.

"If the energy produced was visible light, instead of gravitational waves, the collision would have been brighter than all of the stars in the universe combined," said Peter Saulson, a professor of physics at Syracuse University, where Nitz received his doctoral degree in 2015.

Gravitational waves occurring in space-time were predicted to exist by Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity in 1916. They were proven in 1974 and many times since over the last four decades, through mathematical calculations related to observations in space.

But LIGO, for the first time in September 2015, detected and recorded the actual disturbance in gravitational waves from two black holes crashing. The right-angle ground antenna arrays in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La., have arms almost 2½ miles long. As gravitational waves pass through the Earth, the wave distances on one antenna arm will get slightly larger; on the perpendicular antenna arm, slightly shorter, and those variations will then oscillate between the two antennae.

The wave variations are infinitesimal to the extreme — "We need to measure that to such precision, to one-one thousandth the size of a proton," Nitz said. (That's less than the size of an atom.)

Sir Isaac Newton's apple didn't fall far from the tree with Nitz. He grew up in Ann Arbor until age 11, when he moved to Houghton with his family, as his father, David Nitz, took a job as a professor of physics at Michigan Technological University, studying space particles.

"Any sort of move is a big change," Alex Nitz said. "I definitely fell in love in the U.P. It’s beautiful country."

A self-professed "stereotypical science geek" in grade school, Nitz said he still got along with classmates more interested in Arctic Cats than particle mass.

"I don't think anybody made me feel out of place in the slightest," he said. "I have lifelong friends who still live there."

Living on Portage Lake in the Keweenaw Peninsula, Nitz developed a love for waterskiing and sailing in the family's 28-foot sailboat. Nitz still visits regularly, and plans a summer vacation to the Keweenaw later next month. "I miss being close to the water," he said.

After high school, Nitz headed back to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, and, through physics professor Keith Riles, was introduced to LIGO.

"He's doing great stuff," Riles said. "It's been splendid to watch his career develop. The most recent discovery might well have been missed if Alex hadn't paid careful attention to the data being received."

Central to that detection — finding a needle of a signal in a haystack of noise — was a specialized software package that Nitz had developed for LIGO during his doctoral work at Syracuse University, where he received his PhD in 2015.

Nitz said LIGO will continue to chart new territory, as scientists further enhance detection technology. The work will help improve understanding of some of the most fundamental questions that still elude science and man about the creation of stars, galaxies and the universe itself.

"There's so much that's still unknown," he said. "Anytime you can open up a new way to view the universe, you're bound to see unexpected things."

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© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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