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Mohon grad shares physics discovery with students

Mohon grad shares physics discovery with students

Students learn about gravitational waves discovery
Mohon grad shares physics discovery with students
Jessica McIver, a scholar in experimental physics at CalTech, talks Dec. 19 to students at Mohonasen High School in Schenectady

In a Mohonasen High School science class Monday, Jess McIver, a 2005 graduate and research physicist at Caltech, played a brief audio clip. At the end of a low hum, the pitch rose to become a short chirping sound. 

That sound, considered the biggest scientific breakthrough of 2016, was the first-ever recorded evidence of gravitational waves, which were sent rippling across the universe after a pair of massive black holes merged into one even larger black hole more than 1.4 billion years ago. That's how long it took the waves to reach fine-tuned detectors in Louisiana and Washington, last year. 

"That is the sound of black holes merging," McIver told the students. "That is the symphony of the universe you are hearing ... you guys are standing at the precipice of a brand new field in astronomy; it's an exciting time to be alive."

McIver works as a data analyst on the international research project -- called LIGO -- that detected the waves in September 2015 and released the findings to global scientific fanfare in February. Home for the holidays, McIver spent Monday at Mohonasen, discussing gravitational waves with freshman and sophomore students and teaching a coding class to a dozen girls.

"She's been talking to us about gravity waves since before they were even discovered," Earth sciences teacher Nicole Ozimek told her class, as she introduced McIver. 

McIver did her best to explain gravitational waves to the students, who have yet to take physics. She shared her passion for scientific research, which she said grew out of the critical thinking skills and an interest in learning that she cultivated at Mohonasen. Her gravitational wave research has taken her across the globe, to Germany, Korea and Hungary.

Since the LIGO detectors are back online -- after taking a long break for calibration in the wake of the initial findings -- McIver is on call in case further observations are made. When the detectors made their second big finding in December 2015, McIver was sitting at home for a Christmas dinner with her family. Her mom works in the Mohonasen school district office. 

McIver started working on the LIGO project -- LIGO stans for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory -- as an undergraduate at Syracuse University, where she studied physics and journalism. She earned a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts 1 1/2 years ago and now works on the project at Caltech. She helps watch other sounds that might be interfering with the LIGO detectors, ensuring measurements come from a bona fide astronomical event and not a truck rambling past the sensitive observational devices.

The students asked her a handful of questions about why the detectors aren't fooled by other sounds, what gravitational waves would feel like if they came from something closer to Earth (answer: "not pleasant") and whether she gets frustrated with her work. 

McIver also worked with a group of girls who volunteered for a special computer coding workshop. Walking through an introductory HTML tutorial, McIver said she wished she had started coding in high school -- it's a big part of her current work, she said. Once they started, the girls quietly and attentively plowed through the basic coding needed to design a website.

"There's not a specific part of it I like; I just like solving problems," said sophomore Emily Ellers, who is interested in pursuing studies in computer science.

From an educational perspective, McIver's visit was less about gravitational waves and more about showing students that scientific discovery is obtainable.

"The goal is to inspire them and let them see that Dr. McIver was them 10 years ago -- to see this stuff is possible," Ozimek said of the visit.

Joe Betzwieser, who grew up in Clifton Park and graduated from Shenedehowa High School in 1997, also works on the project out of the Livingston, Louisiana- based LIGO observatory.



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