Saratoga County

Shen grad helped discover a new window on the universe

Even as a first-grader Joe Betzwieser knew he was interested in science, space and asking (and maybe
Joe Betzwieser, a Shenendehowa High School graduate, is a research physicist, studies gravitational waves.
Joe Betzwieser, a Shenendehowa High School graduate, is a research physicist, studies gravitational waves.

Even as a first-grader Joe Betzwieser knew he was interested in science, space and asking (and maybe answering) big questions.

Back then, Betzwieser, who grew up in Clifton Park and graduated from Shenedehowa High School in 1997, said he wanted to be a space shuttle engineer as his class buried a time capsule.

The career as a shuttle engineer never came to pass, but Betzwieser, 36 and now working as a research physicist, will forever be counted as a contributor to the team that first detected gravitational waves — in this case, waves that a pair of merging black holes sent rippling across the universe more than 1 billion years ago.

“It was a good thing I changed my mind,” Betzwieser said in a Wednesday interview. “They canceled the shuttle program.”

But his work at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, LIGO, in Livingston, La., is just beginning. The observatory, in conjunction with a Washington state-based observatory and hundreds of scientists across the globe, detected the gravitational waves in September and released its findings to international fanfare last month.

The existence of such waves, which emanate from massive forces in the universe like black holes and neutron stars and ripple across the space-time curvature of the universe, was first theorized by Albert Einstein in 1916.

Betzwieser calibrates the machinery, testing it too make sure the massive amount of data it constantly collects is valid. Sometimes when Betzwieser runs a test of the detector, the data collected during the test can’t be used to draw broader conclusions, he said. On the morning of Sept. 14, 2015, Betzwieser finished such a test and left work at around 4:30 a.m. Just hours later, a scientist in Germany first noticed the data blip that resulted in last month’s momentous announcement.

By measuring more and more gravitational waves, Betzwieser explained, scientists will begin to build a deeper understanding of the properties of black holes and other features of the universe as well as better understand their frequency and distribution across space and time.

“It’s the first data point,” Betzwieser said of the first-ever detection. But even that singular data point has launched what many scientists say will be an entirely new field in astrophysics.

“It’s a new window on the universe,” he said.

Betzwieser has been searching for a peak out that window for a long time. He studied physics at Cornell University as an undergraduate, where he first learned about Einstein’s gravitational waves theory in a general relativity course. He earned his doctorate from MIT and joined the LIGO team in the early 2000s as a graduate student.

But before that, he was a Shenendehowa student working on a team in the FIRST Robotics Competition. The team was tasked with building a robot that could hang tire tubes on a rack of arms as it constantly spun and another two robots jostled for position in the arena, he recalled.

“The first competition was a good learning experience, because we actually built something,” he said.

His mom, Diane Betzwieser, said Joe was always an excellent student as he worked his way through school and naturally gravitated toward problem-solving challenges like Odyssey of the Mind and the robotics competition.

“His teachers were very supportive of everything he did, and they helped him develop an appreciation for thinking outside of the box,” she said. “He learned a lot of skills for problem solving — that’s basically what he does at LIGO, a lot of problem solving.”

As a former middle school science teacher and administrator at Shenendehowa Schools, Diane Betzwieser, who still lives in Clifton Park with her husband and Joe’s dad, Al Betzwieser, said she has been excited to watch the progress being made by the LIGO team.

The LIGO team in Livingston is currently tinkering with the detector, working to improve its sensitivity and ability to see further into space. Betzwieser said they hope to begin collecting data again later this year.

The observatory regularly hosts school kids on tours and opens up to the public for Science Saturdays every month. The last Science Saturday, he said, drew well over 1,000 visitors; usually they get 100 or 200 visitors.

“For the last five years, when they come through and ask have you seen anything, we said no,” he said. “Now, when they come through, we say yes.”

Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.

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