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James Lough

How did a physics alumnus help prove century-old Einstein theory?

In 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration team announced that it had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding.

It was a blockbuster moment for scientists that proved Einstein’s theory of relativity and the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in the space-time fabric once considered science-fiction.

More than 1,000 scientists worked on the discovery, and one of them was a Hokie alumnus, James Lough, a 2001 graduate of the Department of Physics. Lough is now a post-doctoral researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, also known as the Albert Einstein Institute, in Hannover, Germany. The institute runs the GEO600 gravitational wave detector, one of the world’s most sensitive interferometers and one part of the larger LIGO effort that detected the plinking sound of the black holes on Sept. 14, 2015. Lough works as lead scientist at the GEO600 interferometer.

The black hole collision was estimated to have occurred 1.3 billion years ago.

“This signal was so loud, it was hard not to be excited especially at first,” Lough said shortly after the announcement was made. “This opens up a new window on the universe. We can observe things in a way we haven’t been able to before. The analogy that we make is that we could see the universe for a long while, but only now are we able to hear the universe.” Lough’s job has him maintaining and improving the sensitivity machines at the lab. For Advanced LIGO, he created a system that compiles real-time diagnostic information. After the discovery, the entire LIGO team had to keep mum on the breakthrough.

“There was a long—and important—process of validating the discovery,” Lough said. “My wife and kids came with me to see the announcement because this was such a momentous event.”