Recalling the bold campus experiment to prove Einstein’s gravitational waves theory.

By Costa Maragos Posted: February 12, 2016 1:00 p.m.

Postdoctoral fellow, Don Strayer (rear) explains the operation of the gravity wave apparatus to Dr. Weber (foreground), during a 1975 visit to Regina.
Postdoctoral fellow, Don Strayer (rear) explains the operation of the gravity wave apparatus to Dr. Weber (foreground), during a 1975 visit to Regina. Photo courtesy of the Department of Physics.

A University of Regina connection has emerged with the news that has the scientific community in a tizzy.

Pioneering experiments relating to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, took place on the U of R campus more than 40 years ago and have left a positive legacy to this day.

It was announced Thursday, that scientists, led by a team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) have proven Albert Einstein’s century old theory of the existence of gravitational waves rippling across the universe. The finding has opened a new window to observe the cosmos.

In the early 1970’s, an ambitious group of researchers at our Department of Physics boldly and aggressively set out to prove Einstein’s theory.

The Gravity Wave Antenna Project was led by Dr. Giorgio Papini, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the U of R in collaboration with Dr. Joseph Weber, an esteemed American Physicist from Maryland.

Dr. Weber, who passed away in 2000, has been described as “the father of gravitational wave astronomy.”

He was impressed with the high-calibre of research at the U of R and made visits to the physics lab here.

“For those who like myself were excited over forty years ago by the audacious prospects that Einstein's theory offered, the achievement this week produces profound satisfaction and excitement,” says Dr. Papini who now lives in Toronto. “The Regina experiment to detect gravitational waves was on a much smaller scale than LIGO and our technology was crude in comparison. Our objective was to observe the short burst of radiation emitted in the sudden collapse of large stars. The Regina antenna was made of quartz and was therefore its own transducer, very much like in a watch the oscillations of the crystal are transformed into electric signals.”

Dr. Papini was confident his Regina research team had the expertise in low temperature physics, and pursued a concerted approach to the detection of gravity waves.

It was a bold move at the time but worth a shot. Ongoing funding was secured, and researchers and support staff were hired. The team built an early cryogenic gravitational wave detector and was impressive enough to attract the attention of Dr. Weber.

Physics Plaque
This tiny plaque, located outside the Lab Building, recognizes the researchers who worked on the Gravity Wave Antenna Project.

In particular, the team cooled an exceedingly pure quartz crystal to reduce the device’s thermal noise to a temperature a few thousands of a degree above absolute zero, a tremendous achievement for that time.

“Our apparatus reached a final sensitivity of less than a millionth  that of LIGO,  in a totally different frequency range and could have not detected the phenomenon described in this week’s announcement,” recalls Dr. Papini. “Because of the rare occurrence of the events that could be detected with the technology of those days, a star explosion in about thirty years in nearby galaxies, all resonating bar antennas were gradually abandoned in favour of broadband interferometers of the scale of LIGO and VIRGO”, added Dr. Papini.  

In the end, the team was hampered by immature technology at the time as well as a lack of local manufacturers for specialized equipment, and eventually disbanded.

The members moved on to places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Northrop Grumman Industries, a testament to the amazing talent that had been assembled here.

Professors Dr. Garth Huber and Dr. Zisis Papandreou started their university education in the Physics Department only a year after the end of the gravity wave project, and were taught by Dr. Papini.  

“The gravity wave team effort established the department’s research reputation within Saskatchewan and across Canada, and played an important role in establishing the University of Regina as an independent research organization," says Dr. Huber.  

Says Dr. Papandreou; “This project has had a profound effect not just on our Science Faculty. All this has led to fruitful and ongoing collaborations with the TRIUMF lab in Vancouver, the Jefferson Lab in Virginia and most recently the Fedoruk Centre in Saskatoon.”

“This is in addition to many other projects the Physics Department is involved in with labs around the world. Close links with international collaborations play a key role in the academic life of the department, and  a must in an era of increasingly multidisciplinary research.”

Drs. Huber, Papandreou and their colleagues in Physics continue the early legacy of the department in the area of subatomic physics contributing to and leading international experiments on foundational physics, and training the next generation of scientists.
There remains however, one small but permanent reminder on campus of the Gravity Wave Antenna Project.

Outside, embedded in the first step leading to the west side of the Laboratory building is a fist-sized round plaque with the words “National Gravity Net Station.”

It’s a nod to a group of risk taking researchers who laid the groundwork for science and research excellence at the U of R.

Physics Department Excellence

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Another TRIUMF for U of R Physics

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