A New Window to the Secrets of the Universe

  • Andrea Lommen, associate professor of astronomy at F&M, is part of a NASA team whose mission is to learn the interior composition of neutron stars and whether future space travelers can use the stars' pulsating light to navigate through the cosmos. (Photo by Marcy Dubroff)

For many professors, receiving a federal grant is a career milestone that paves the way for academic research. For Andrea Lommen, it might also help to unlock the secrets of the universe.

Lommen, associate professor of astronomy at Franklin & Marshall College, is one of five co-investigators who will direct a $6.5 million grant project from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Office of International Science and Engineering and the Division of Astronomical Sciences. The award, part of the NSF’s Partnership for International Research and Education program (PIRE), will establish an international team that will detect and study low-frequency gravitational waves, a key prediction of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The grant puts F&M students and faculty in touch with a group of esteemed scientists from across the globe, from liberal arts colleges to large research universities. The selection process was highly competitive; of 580 pre-proposals, PIRE invited 80 groups to write full proposals and awarded only 15 grants. The $6.5 million awarded to Lommen’s group was the largest grant.

“Besides the detection of gravitational waves, which will revolutionize the field of astrophysics, the outcome will be a diverse, globally engaged and empowered group of young astrophysicists,” says Lommen, who will direct the project’s international student exchange program. “They’ll be ready to take on the challenges of the next era of gravitational wave astronomy, where we move beyond the concerns of detection and on to the task of studying the gravitational wave universe.”

Lommen says the discovery of gravitational waves will allow scientists to “see” the universe in a new way. “There have been many discoveries in astronomy in my lifetime, including gamma ray astronomy, X-ray astronomy and infrared astronomy,” she says. “But those are all different versions of the same phenomenon, electromagnetic radiation. We’re looking at a totally different phenomenon, opening up a whole different canister that may contain as much information as the other techniques combined.”

The PIRE project fosters a partnership between the North American NanoHertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav), chaired by Lommen, and scientists from Australia, Europe and India. NANOGrav is competing—and collaborating—with other organizations, including Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) to detect gravitational waves for the first time.

“The first detection will be fun, but we’re already excited about what happens next,” Lommen says. “While we’re collaborating with LIGO, there’s also a sense that we’re competing. Sometimes they think I’m a spy. I call it a 'coopetition.’”

In addition to the NSF grant, NANOGrav also made news in August with the release of the 2010 Decadal Survey in Astronomy, a report from the National Academies that identifies top priorities for astronomy in the coming decade. NANOGrav tied for the top ranking in the “medium size” category from the panel on particle astrophysics and gravitation.

Also this summer, Lommen traveled to Leiden University in The Netherlands to participate in a summer program for 30 international students. Lommen, who gave students an introduction to pulsar timing, says the summer school will be part of the PIRE grant each year. With the detection of gravitational waves in the next decade, Lommen’s teaching—and the students’ learning—will surely expand to new horizons in the coming years.

“The way we do astronomy will change,” Lommen says. “We’ll use 'multi-messenger astronomy,’ studying the universe by piecing together X-ray observation, neutrinos, cosmic waves and gravitational waves in a very complete way.

“Sometimes I’m thinking 25 years into the future. I hope some of my students will become gravitational-wave astrophysicists. Now, gravitational waves are a paragraph in a textbook. In 10 years, maybe they’ll be a chapter. And then something bigger.”

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