The fifth summer school for Gravitational Wave Astronomy (GWA) wrapped up a month ago on South Padre Island, a popular Spring break island resort spot on the Texas border near Mexico.  The Brownsville Herald quoted Peter Saulson as saying that the 2-week program is “the only way to learn the basics of this new scientific field of gravitational wave detection.”  If you haven’t heard of Dr. Saulson, he is a big name on the experimental side of GWA.  His PhD adviser was David Wilkinson of WMAP fame (and he was the esteemed colleague of Cosmic Variance’s Mark Trodden before Mark left for Penn).  He is a fantastic lecturer, one of four that the NASA-funded Center of Gravitational Wave Astronomy has hired to run the summer school.

End of Week 1

End of Week 1 Group Photo

I attended the program last year and would summarize it as the single most memorable experience pertaining to physics that I have ever had.  The group of students in attendance were top-caliber, and I made friends with almost all of them, some of whom I still keep in touch with on facebook.  Lots of them were already involved with GWA in one way or another, a couple having internships lined up at LIGO and a couple more doing research for their advisers on data analysis or numerical relativity.

On The Wave, the island's bus system

On The Wave, the island's bus system

One in particular (far right, on the right) persuaded me into a year long furlough away from computation, having enticed me into experiment with his descriptions of what a joyous time he was having researching the optical system that will be placed in Advanced LIGO.   (He was a great conversationalist and spoke five languages, in fact–one of them Russian, which came in handy when I met an attractive Russian girl on the bus to class; he scored me a date with her.)  Combined with the enthusiasm Dr. Saulson expressed in his lectures, my newfound interest in optical science took on a life of its own and I ended up deserting gravitational waves within a couple months, took an experimental physics class the following semester, and applied to the College of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona to do a PhD in optics last December.  With the rejection later came the realization that I am not fit for the laboratory, but my interest in optics has persisted.  Luckily, there’s plenty of computation to be done in that field.

My memory is fading, but I believe the schedule for the summer school was 9am to 4pm with an hour for lunch between morning and afternoon sessions and two fifteen minute coffee-breaks within each session.  The layout was very conducive to helping vacationers serious students digest as much material as possible.  There would be a lecture followed by some sort of problem solving session (except in Dr. Saulson’s case, as he preferred to give two lectures…fine by us, since that meant no homework.)  The first week covered Peter’s talks on the experimental aspects of GWA in the morning and Dr. Creighton‘s lecture and homework session on the relevant astrophysics of the gravitational wave sources in the afternoon. The second week dove into numerical relativity in the mornings by Dr. Gonzalez, followed by the pertinent data analysis techniques in the afternoon, presented by another Peter, Dr. Peter Shawhan.

The Compuer Lab

Engaged with MATLAB and Dr. Shawhan's Exercises

I enjoyed Dr. Shawhan’s section the most, as he prepared a fantastic series of exercises to work on after his lecture, which was done in the adjacent room with computers seen above.  The exercises covered the basic methods to extract a gravitational wave signal from the raw stream of data collected, which is full of all sorts of noise.  This was to be performed using–you guessed it–MATLAB!  I contemplated re-solving all of the problems and posting about them, and finally decided that would be way too much work.   But then I noticed that Peter posted solutions this year!  If physics is your thing, then studying his solutions is by far the most rewarding way to go about learning MATLAB.  I hope to document in more detail the code for my favorite problems and maybe add a bit to them in a post, as only a one-liner is needed to play the sound of an incoming gravity wave signal (reminiscent of my last post, Hacking the Pay Phone).

Week 1 had a good deal of homework for the astrophysics section, which for the first couple days was done in the kitchen of the Super 8 motel we were all staying at.  That gave everyone the opportunity to interact and argue over the proper way to manipulate tensors.  Come day 4 or so it was all fun and games.

with Dr. Saulson

Dinner with Dr. Saulson

The beach was waiting for us once school ended and we usually had a dinner planned with one of the professors.  An Italian guy was fond of gathering up a group to tour the local bars later in the evening, but I was usually too worn out and wouldn’t let myself drink, having hit up the local gym in the afternoon.  Towards the end, we all took the dolphin watch tour, shown below, which was most relaxing.

with Dr. Shawhan

Dolphin Watch with Dr. Shawhan

As a whole, the program managed to delve into many of the ins and outs of the field, including tidbits from science policy on managing funding for the detectors, the interaction between LIGO and the other facilities such as VIRGO, and the publishing issues that arise in a worldwide collaboration involving thousands of scientists.  Just writing this post reminds me of how excited I was to be there in the company of other students with the same passion as me at the time and with researchers who have no doubt in their minds that a conclusive direct detection of gravitational waves will be made in the next few years.  If professional physics conferences like the one Daniel at CV posted on the other day are anything like this, I see why there are so many of them.  If you are an upper level undergrad or a beginning graduate student with an interest in GWA, consider applying to next year’s summer school.

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