The universe speaks wins silver
By then, he had enough math experience to enroll in Physics 101, taught by Professor Dick Shamrell. Messick loved it. Shamrell said he remembers Messick as “good at motivating his classmates. He helped enliven the class a little bit, because he was interested in physics. He wasn’t just taking the class.”
After his second year, Messick transferred to the University of Washington, though he hadn’t yet completed his associate degree. The transition was rocky at first. Messick said he remembers coming back to Vancouver one weekend to visit his girlfriend—now wife, Kasey Cannon ’11—and admitting, “I don’t think I can do physics. This is just killing me.”
One of the reasons he rebounded, Messick said, is because he joined a study group whose members became some of his closest friends. Messick said a common misconception about the field is that it’s a solitary pursuit. In fact, he said, students who succeed in physics or math often do so because they’ve got strong social networks.
“There are some weeks that we spent 80 hours in the physics building doing homework, and the only way you can do that without losing your mind is to have people around you who you like,” he said.
Waves of gravity
During his second year at the University of Washington (UW), Messick was elected treasurer of the Society of Physics Students. One of his responsibilities was to set up a field trip. Someone suggested visiting the gravitational wave observatory in Hanford, Wash.
“I had no idea what it was. I had no idea what gravitational waves were,” he said. “But I memorized the acronym: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO).” Messick said he only went on the field trip because he’d organized it, not because he was particularly interested. When he arrived, however, scientists delivered a one-hour presentation that changed Messick’s path in life.
“It blew me away…. As soon as I saw it, I couldn’t let go of it,” he said.
The LIGO experiment began in the 1980s and is now the collaboration of thousands of scientists across the world. Two giant observatories were built—thousands of miles apart—one in Washington and the other in Livingston, La. The National Science Foundation-funded labs analyze data from cataclysmic occurrences in the universe—like black holes.
At each observatory, a two-and-a-half-mile-long sensor uses laser light split into two beams that travels back and forth down the length of the facility. The beams are used to monitor the precise distance between mirrors at both ends of the laboratory. According to Einstein’s theory, the distance between the mirrors changes—by an infinitesimal amount, much smaller than the diameter of a proton—when a gravitational wave passes by the detector.
“As the gravitational wave passes by, it’ll increase the distance,” Messick said. Just how tiny a disturbance is LIGO measuring? A gravitational wave nudged the mirrors apart by less than one-tenth of the radius of a proton. The radius of a proton is 0.87 femtometers. A femtometer is a millionth of a billionth of a meter. Smaller than small.
After being duly impressed with the LIGO experiment and the Hanford facility, Messick organized another visit to the lab the following year. He sought out every publication related to LIGO he could find in preparation for the trip. When a visiting scientist associated with the project came to UW to present his research, Messick stayed late to ask questions.
After graduation from UW, Messick was accepted into a doctoral program in astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University.
“LIGO was still a dream… I knew there were some LIGO people at Penn State, but they didn’t have positions open,” Messick said.
Messick networked and worked hard on other research, and within a year he was working for a scientist who collaborated with LIGO. As a result, Messick was hired to conduct real-time data analysis of gravitational waves.
“I should say ‘near real time,’ because basically if something came in, the pipeline that I worked on would identify it within a minute,” Messick said.
He and his fellow researchers hope to shave that time down to a few seconds. The importance of a quick turnaround was underscored when researchers unexpectedly detected gravitational waves in the fall of 2015.
Click to see more photos and videos and listen to black holes colliding.
On September 14, 2015, just over a year after Messick joined the project, scientists performed a test with new, particularly sensitive detection equipment. Something dramatic, and unexpected, happened—two chirps were detected, one at each LIGO observatory.
The discovery was nearly missed.
Coincidentally, had those same gravitational waves rolled through the area one day later, they would have been lost. Researchers had planned to dismantle the sensors.
Instead, a chirp, lasting just a fraction of a second, was heard by real-time analysts in both Livingston and Hanford. They immediately notified researchers at the labs. Plans to take down the sensors were canceled. Instead, scientists jumped into action, snapping photos of every cable and connection, to verify that the equipment had functioned properly.
Video by Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) Project
Messick wasn’t one of the analysts who made the discovery. He was off at the time and even overslept the morning after the detection, arriving late to the office. But as soon as he found out, he too got right to work.
“Just as we were walking to the seminar, my advisor tells me to check my email,” Messick recalled with a laugh. “I had to sit through the hour-long seminar thinking, ‘holy shit, we may have just seen a gravitational wave!’”
For months afterward, Messick assisted with the analysis, filtering out interference and checking to make sure what they’d detected was actually a gravitational wave. After the discovery was announced, Messick emailed a note to Shamrell, which began “I thought you might like to know that I’ve been pretty extensively involved in the discovery of the first gravitational wave…” Shamrell said he remembers reading that email, which is now printed and hanging on his office wall.
“My jaw is falling at this point,” Shamrell said.
Contribution to science
Messick is still two years away from finishing his doctorate. He continues to work on LIGO and hopes to return to the Pacific Northwest someday to teach at a university and conduct research.
“The game for the last five decades was to prove whether they exist,” Messick said of gravitational waves. Now that we know they exist, he said, scientists can use LIGO to map out parts of the universe that are too far away to see. The technology could help test alternate theories of gravity—different from Einstein’s theory of relativity—that also predict gravitational waves. And the labs can teach us more about black holes and other massive generators of gravitational waves.
Latest news: China setting up gravitational-wave observatory in Tibet
Messick also contributes to a research project that consolidates space-related findings into a shared database, so researchers can compare their data with findings from other labs. Messick said he hopes to incorporate LIGO results into this collaboration, which could expand its influence in the sciences even further.
For Messick, it’s still hard to believe he contributed to scientific history.
“We live in a funny world because a year ago, I would have said, this is the best case scenario: I worked on the first-ever detection of a gravitational wave,” Messick said. “If I’d started a year later, I don’t think I would have been in the collaboration long enough to be on the paper, which would have been a shame, but the bigger shame would have been that I didn’t contribute to the finding. I just fell into the right project at the right time.”
Lily Raff McCaulou is a journalist living in Portland, Ore. She is the author of Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, which the San Francisco Chronicle named one of the best books of 2012. She has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic.
Editor’s Note: Since this story was written, The New York Times reported a second detection of colliding black holes. On December 26, 2015, ripples shook both detectors in Washington and Louisiana causing a chirp that lasted about one second. Scientists expect more such universe noises to be heard in the future. The New York Times story was published on June 16, 2016.