Gravitational wave leader wins Boas medal

Friday 16 February 2018

Professor David McClelland has been awarded the prestigious Boas medal, by the Australian Institute of Physics, "for key contributions to one of the greatest achievements in the history of physics – the observation of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO)."

Professor McClelland has been a leader in the Australia's part in the historic hunt for gravitational waves for over 25 years. The multi-university team from the ANU, University of Adelaide and UWA provided essential components and techniques to the Advanced LIGO detectors that made the discovery. 

Australia was a full partner in this achievement along with the USA, United Kingdom and Germany. 

"I feel this award is for what we have done as a collaboration," he said.

"It's marvellous that the Australian effort has been acknowledged."

The award of the Australian medal joins accolades for the discovery of gravitational waves that include international prizes such as the Nobel, the Kavli and the Breakthrough, as well major prizes for leading researchers in UK, Germany and France.

"To be part of Nobel-winning science is an opportunity very few people get," Professor McClelland said.

"It's been quite an epic journey. Part of the project's success is the grand vision of fundamental physics, and part is building the most sensitive detectors ever, pushing the limits of measurement."

After 25 years Professor McClelland is still fascinated by the science.

"It's amazing that the biggest optical instruments ever built are limited by the physics of the very small - quantum mechanics - because you have to make a measurement 1000th of the size of a proton."

Members of the ANU gravitational wave team are currently at LIGO in the US installing quantum squeezers, equipment that will eventually allow the instrument to expand its reach into the universe by a factor of 1000.

The improvements are likely to bring more observations as revolutionary as the initial discovery in 2015, when the instrument was only at 30 percent of its expected sensitivity.

The discovery of gravitational waves from a pair of merging high-stellar-mass black holes was somewhat of a surprise, Professor McClelland said.

"There was no evidence of binary systems of such black holes."

Another two black hole collisions have subsequently been observed, and then, in August 2017, the merger of two neutron stars, which was seen with both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves.

"That event launched a new field: multi-messenger astronomy," Professor McClelland said.

"With the establishment of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Gravitational wave Discovery, the future of the field in Australia is extremely bright!".

The Boas Medal was established in 1984 to promote excellence in research in Physics and to perpetuate the name of Walter Boas. The award is for physics research carried out in the five years prior to the date of the award.

Professor McClelland joins a galaxy of stars from RSPE that have previously won the medal:

Professor Chennupati Jagadish (2013), Professor Yuri Kivshar (2005), Professor George Dracoulis (2004), Professor Hans Bachor (2000) and Professor Jim Williams (1993).

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