Peter Veitch receives Australia's most prestigious scientific research award
University of Adelaide’s Professor Peter Veitch is among four scientists who together have been awarded the country’s most prestigious award in scientific research, the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.
The PM’s Prize was awarded for their role in the detection of gravitational waves, a scientific breakthrough which captured the world’s attention in early 2016 when the international team of researchers announced they had found for the first time the 'ripples in spacetime' predicted by Einstein in his general theory of relativity 100 years previously.
Gravitational waves are produced by cataclysmic events in the distant Universe such as colliding black holes and neutron stars or the massive explosions of supernovae.
The original detection came from the merger of two black holes more than one billion years ago. Since then there have been more than 50 detections including, in 2017, the first observation of two neutron stars colliding, an event which heralded “multi-messenger astronomy”.
“The detection of gravitational waves is arguably among the greatest scientific discoveries of this century, recognised by the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics,” says Professor Michael Brooks, Interim Vice-Chancellor and President, University of Adelaide.
“It has opened up a new way of exploring our Universe and our origins, and is already having a huge impact on physics and astronomy.
“It was a technological triumph. We are extremely proud of Peter, and the role he and the team here in the Department of Physics have played in this discovery and their ongoing work to push the boundaries in detection sensitivities, and applying these advanced technologies to a broad variety of other fields.”
Despite Einstein’s prediction of their existence in 1916, the detection of gravitational waves took decades of painstaking technological and theoretical innovation, collaboration and a great deal of perseverance.
The four prize winners – Professor Veitch from University of Adelaide, Professor David McClelland and Professor Susan Scott from Australian National University and Professor Emeritus David Blair from University of Western Australia – have collaborated for 30 years on the search, bringing complementary parts to the gravitational-wave detector project led by the global LIGO Scientific Collaboration.
The Australian research into gravitational waves continues today within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav).
Making waves through the world of science
The University of Adelaide team developed and installed ultra-high precision optical sensors used to correct the distortion of the laser beams within the LIGO detectors, enabling the high sensitivity needed to detect these minute signals. The team continues to work on advanced lasers and optics to enhance the sensitivity of the detectors, and the technologies are finding other application in fields as diverse as remote sensing, medicine and defence.
“I’m incredibly honoured to receive this award,” says Professor Veitch.
“It recognises the contribution that Australia has made and continues to make to the detection of gravitational waves. And that discovery was enabled by having the most sensitive detectors in the world – made possible by the technology we’ve developed here at the University of Adelaide.”
The current team at the University of Adelaide includes: academic and research staff Professor David Ottaway, Professor Emeritus Jesper Munch, Dr Dan Brown, Dr Sebastian Ng and Dr Huy Cao; postgraduate students Alexei Ciobanu, Deeksha Beniwal, Sophie Muuse, Kendall Jenner, Zachary Holmes, Mitchell Schiworski and Muskan Pathak; and undergraduate students Georgia Bolingbroke and Thomas Roocke.
“With this type of research we stay at the absolute forefront of technology,” says Professor Veitch. “My students get to work with the best people in the world, on the best project in the world.
“I’d encourage any student to think about what it is they want to do. When I started working in this field the detection of gravitational waves was so far into the future that sometimes people used to make jokes about us.
“But it was something I wanted to do because it was about Einstein, space and advanced technology. Everybody’s interested in space and astronomy.
“People want to know how it is we’re here, why we are here, or what’s out there. Finding answers to these questions is what this type of research and these type of activities allows us to do.”