HWS Physics Professor Receives National Science Foundation Grants – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

HWS Physics Professor Receives National Science Foundation Grants

Two grants, totaling more than $100,000, will support efforts to measure gravity waves.

(Sept. 12, 2003) Geneva, N.Y. – Research at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., on the development of an advanced gravitational wave observatory, has received support from two National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling more than $100,000. Gravitational waves, an as-yet unmeasured prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, are believed to be a potent source of information about some of the most energetic and least understood events in the Universe, including black hole dynamics, neutron stars coalescence, and the birth of the universe.

The grants will fund the development of advanced instrumentation and detector characterization for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Located in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., the LIGO observatories are large interferometers designed to measure miniscule distortions in space-time. With arms that extend out 2.5 miles, the instrument’s impressive sensitivity can detect a change in that arm length of 1 percent of the diameter of a proton. The research at HWS is part of an effort to increase that sensitivity by a factor of 100.

HWS assistant professor of physics Steven Penn is the principal investigator for the HWS-LIGO research group that received the grants. HWS is one of only three undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the country participating in the LIGO project.

“The LIGO project is at a significant point in the development of its next-generation detector,” said Penn. “Our research effort at HWS has broken important new ground in materials research for Advanced LIGO and opened up design possibilities that few in our collaboration thought achievable a few years ago. Our research is having a very noticeable impact on this major NSF project.”

“The Colleges backed the HWS-LIGO program with the largest start-up award in their history,” said Penn. “The HWS-LIGO thermal noise research provides a particularly rich and accessible area for HWS undergraduate research. Having Hobart and William Smith undergraduates involved in a major and inspiring research program like LIGO will undoubtedly provide a significant boost in both the number of physics majors and the depth of their education.” Currently two students are part of the HWS-LIGO team.

Hobart and William Smith Colleges are coordinate, private, liberal arts institutions, located in Geneva, N.Y., the heart of the Finger Lakes region. The Colleges, which have a combined enrollment of 1,800, offer a remarkably broad array of majors and minors, with a cross-disciplinary flavor intended to better inform both professional and intellectual pursuits. The Colleges are noted also for an ambitious emphasis on international study, and for their programs in community service. Hobart College for men and William Smith College for women share faculty, facilities, and curriculum, but maintain separate dean's offices, athletics programs, student governments, and traditions.