Gravitational waves: Hong Kong scientist involved in breakthrough hopes it will propel his university to greater things

Professor Tjonnie Li of Chinese University was involved in analysing data and crunching numbers to determine whether scientists had detected a gravitational wave signal

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 February, 2016, 11:05pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 February, 2016, 11:36pm

A Chinese University scientist involved in the breakthrough detection of gravitational waves in the fabric of space and time has expressed the hope that the development will prompt his institution to invest more in physics so it becomes a key research base in Asia.

Stretching back 1.3 billion years, a collision of two black holes was observed, triggering waves rippling through space and time. They reached earth on September 14 last year, where the event was recorded by scientists in findings announced on Thursday.

READ MORE: Detection of gravitational waves predicted by Einstein would open new window on universe

The discovery of the final prediction in Albert Einstein’s 100 year-old general theory of relativity – on the existence of gravitational waves – is seen as unlocking new secrets of the universe.

For decades, scientists tried to detect such an event, which is too faint for most advanced scientific equipment to detect.

Professor Tjonnie Li, from Chinese University’s department of physics, was the only scientific expert from the city chosen to join the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) programme back in 2009.

"It's fair to say this is the beginning of a new era in astronomy," Li said. "Every time we have taken a leap, for example we started using X-rays or infrared rays to look at the universe, we've seen incredible things and phenomena. This is even a step further and the start of an exciting journey into all of the unknowns astrophysics has to offer."

Professor David Reitze, executive director of the Ligo project, who made the announcement on Thursday, declared: "It's the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now, we've been deaf."

READ MORE: Gravitational waves for dummies: what are they and why are scientists so excited about them?

Li noted that about 90 per cent of the universe remained unknown. But he said the technology used by the worldwide team of scientists could hold the key to many more secrets of time and space, like the impact of the Big Bang – the very beginning of the universe.

Researchers estimated that the power of the first black hole event witnessed by scientists, which whipped up a raging storm that lasted just 20 milliseconds, was approximately 50 times greater than all the power in the universe.

The Hong Kong professor said the finding was as significant as the Higgs boson, the smallest particle in the world, detected in 2012.

"The Higgs boson was very big by itself because it really allowed us to move forward in our explanation of the smallest things in the universe, but this is completely on the opposite scale.

"Now having gravitational waves, we can start studying the largest things in the universe, the universe as a whole, stars and black holes.”

Li, 29, considered an expert in gravitational wave signals, said he had finally realised his dream to help discover the phenomenon – considered to be the world’s biggest scientific breakthroughs in the modern era.

“This discovery, having worked on this line of research for about seven years, is a dream come true to see it and also be part of it and moreover working on the source of where it was found,” he said.

During Li's time on the project, he analysed data and crunched numbers to determine whether scientists had detected a gravitational wave signal.

The black hole collision was recorded by two widely separated Ligo facilities in the US.

READ MORE: The 100-year journey to prove Einstein’s theory about gravitational waves

The Ligo group itself consists of a global team of more than 1,000 scientists from over 90 universities and research institutes and another group of European scientists called the Virgo Collaboration.

Li anticipated that Chinese University would boost its investment in physics, particularly gravitational waves, to become a key research base for Asia.

“This is really the commitment of the university to continue pursuing this line of research, and hopefully in Hong Kong we can build this up and really do amazing science in the years to come.”

The discovery of the gravitational waves and the curvature of space has prompted speculation that time travel may be possible.

Li said time travel was less far-fetched than once thought though still not a reality.

“The theory of time and space travel is all embedded in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and it’s all about the warping of space time, and if you can imagine this as a fabric then theoretically I could curl up this fabric so I could literally punch a hole through it and connect one region to another region.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse