Developments in Gravitation and Cosmology - Professor Bob Lambourne, Open University


Not since Galileo in 1610 made his ground-breaking discoveries using the newly invented telescope, have we been at such a scientific threshold - a new age of astronomy. Such was the view of our Vice-President, Professor Bob Lambourne, in his February 2018 lecture to our Society. For not only were gravity waves, originating from two colliding neutron stars 130 million light years away, detected on 17th August 2017 (GW170817) by the LIGO interferometers in Hanford and Livingston, and the Virgo interferometer near Pisa, but also parallel observations were made all across the electromagnetic spectrum.

Professor Lambourne started his lecture reprising material he had presented to the Society in February last year: Newtonian –v– Einsteinian theories of gravity, Interferometry and LIGO, a brief history of the universe. He then went on to describe the discovery timeline of that neutron star collision detection on 17th August last year.

1.7 seconds after the gravity wave event, a gamma ray burst was detected by the NASA/DoE Fermi space telescope. 6 minutes later the Virgo observatory confirmed the LIGO data (it had taken time because the Virgo detection was very weak, being close to one of the instrument’s blind spots). 40 minutes after the event, the gravity wave alert was sent out to the astronomical community. 5 hours later Virgo and LIGO data were combined to determine the source direction of the original neutron star collision – somewhere near the elliptical galaxy NGC4993 near γ-Hydra. Now optical telescopes could get to work and after 11 hours the Swope 1-metre telescope spotted the collision – the galaxy’s red shift (z = 0.009) put it at a distance of 130 million light years mirroring the gravitational wave data. 15 hours after the event, the Swift satellite reported a bright UV emission. 2 weeks later there was X-ray data. Interestingly, but rather disappointingly, the Ice Cube Neutrino Detector at the South Pole failed to detect anything.

All this takes place rather fittingly almost exactly a century after the birth of modern Cosmology; it heralds the birth of multi-messenger astronomy and hopefully will give us new insights to things like gamma-ray bursts, binary star evolution, heavy element synthesis – and, who knows, even dark matter! “There is a huge revolution in progress” Professor Lambourne concluded “This is a great time to be interested in astronomy”.

Sandy Giles