NI scientist’s role in discovering cosmic shock-waves – BBC News

NI scientist's role in discovering cosmic shock-waves - BBC News

  • By Conor Neeson
  • BBC News IS

image source, Vanderbilt University

One of the groups making the discovery is the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOgrav) Collaboration, led by Northern Ireland’s Dr Stephen Taylor.

The 35-year-old credits his love of all things space-related to witnessing a partial solar eclipse in the summer of 1999, which also happened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing.

“The combination of those things and us learning about it at school – it really fired up my imagination,” Dr Taylor said.

He continued his education at Wallace High School in his home town of Lisburn and his passion for science, he says, never left him.

“I’ve always been fascinated by it and that played a really big role in what subjects I chose for GCSE and A-level,” he said.

image source, EPTA/Stelios Thoukidides

photo caption,

Artist’s impression: Supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies are orbiting each other, sending gravitational shock waves throughout the Universe

Crossing paths

While studying for his A-levels, Dr Taylor went for work experience at a laser laboratory in Oxford.

While at Oxford, he had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell who had discovered pulsars while a grad student at Cambridge.

Pulsars are dead stars that rotate and send out bursts of radio signals at very precise intervals.

“He gave an incredible speech and I went up after spouting the popular science I’d read, thinking I knew everything,” he said.

“But he’s really nice and makes me laugh quite a bit, if I’m honest.”

Pulsars will be measured by Dr Taylor and his team in this latest paper.

“I think it’s really good that Northern Irish people are at both ends of it – because I’ve certainly never heard accents like mine giving these kinds of interviews or science talks,” he says.

photo caption,

Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell discovered pulsars while a grad student at Cambridge

Dr Taylor then went on to do his undergraduate degree at Oxford, followed by a PhD at Cambridge looking at gravitational waves.

“At the time the idea was still theoretical. There were major projects like Ligo” – the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – “but people were more focused on other aspects of physics.


The first in his family to go to university, Dr Taylor said his parents always encouraged him to make choices that would make him happy.

From there, “Nasa-mad” Dr Taylor had the opportunity to work in the space agency’s jet propulsion laboratory before spending some time at the California Institute of Technology.

This led him to begin taking leadership roles, leading a working group looking at gravitational waves and obtaining a permanent position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

His team studies the signals given off by pulsars and the effects of gravitational waves on their frequencies.

Dr Taylor described the radio beams from pulsars as like light beams from a lighthouse. When the frequency with which they hit the Earth changes, it shows gravitational waves as predicted by Einstein.

He says the most plausible cause of these waves is the orbit of the supermassive black hole.

“We’ve seen a lot of hints along the way but this is the first evidence in this kind of data set that’s really exciting.”

Dr Taylor said that, given the frequencies, these black holes would be billions of times the size of the sun and would sit at the centers of galaxies.

‘No roadblocks’

Dr Taylor said the support of family, friends and his schools played an important role.

“They never put up road blocks. I mean, if someone said they wanted to be a theoretical astrophysicist and try to make a big discovery, a lot of people would say, ‘Get behind yourself’.

“But nobody said that.”

But it’s not all plain sailing for people in Dr Taylor’s field.

“It’s not like in the movies, with a load of scientists around a computer saying, ‘We got it; we’re in’. There’s no eureka moment.

“In this line of work, it’s more about the small victories. The big breakthrough moments are rare and often a long time coming.”

Dr Taylor looks forward to working with similar projects around the world, combining their readings to learn more about these black holes and their gravitational effects.

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