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Holmen grad had hand in big physics breakthrough

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Nathaniel Strauss

Nathaniel Strauss, a 2012 Holmen High School graduate, is shown here at a press conference at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., announcing the successful detection of gravity waves.

HOLMEN — Nathaniel Strauss — the valedictorian of Holmen High School’s 2012 graduating class — has impeccable timing.

Strauss knew that he wanted to study physics in a university setting — that’s why he enrolled at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.. Still, he could never have predicted that four years later he’d be listed as co-author on the paper announcing one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time.

“I feel really lucky,” Strauss said.

Fortunately for Strauss, his physics professor at Carleton, Nelson Christensen, was not only deeply involved in the field of gravitational wave research but enlisted Strauss to help him in that endeavor. At a larger institution, such important work would likely be assigned to a graduate student, but Strauss was only a sophomore when he began working with Christensen.

It was just over 100 years ago that Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted the existence of gravity waves. Sometimes called ripples in the fabric of space/time, such waves had never been detected — until last fall. Christensen, along with Strauss and a couple other Carleton undergrads, were part of a group of more than a thousand scientists from more than 90 universities around the United States and 14 other countries who had been working toward confirmation of their existence.

The project was called the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. LIGO is short for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, and the major breakthrough — announced on Feb. 11 this year — came early in the morning (4:51 a.m. Central Daylight Time) on Sept. 14. That was the moment that detectors in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, picked up “ripples” from what subsequently was confirmed to be the collision of two massive black holes some 1.3 billion light years away.

Strauss explained that the discovery was somewhat serendipitous. “The detectors were working,” he said, “but they weren’t really in science mode. They just happened to be on at that time to test them.”

According to Strauss, the scientists working at the time noticed the signals immediately but doubted their significance. “They looked like how gravitational waves should look, but no one believed it at first,” Strauss said.

Within a few days, however, all other explanations had been ruled out. “We knew pretty soon, but then there was months of double-, triple- and quadruple-checking to make sure,” Strauss said.

Although exhilarated by the discovery, Strauss remains modest about his role. “I was a pretty small cog in a big machine,” he said.

Up until September’s breakthrough, gravitational waves, which are extremely weak, had never been detected. Strauss’ job involved understanding the signal output from the detectors and filtering out unwanted “noise” so that the waves — if they even existed — stood out.

“Most of what I do is write (computer) programs,” Strauss said. “After I hunt down noise in the LIGO data, I post my result to the online logbook for the whole collaboration to see.”

He and one or two other Carleton students also meet semiweekly with 10 other members of the collaboration via the Internet. Strauss agrees with the general consensus that the discovery of gravity waves has implications far beyond confirmation of Einstein’s relativity theory. That’s because so much of the universe — an estimated 95 percent — is so-called dark matter or dark energy that is invisible to normal telescopes.

“This is a really a huge deal for human discovery,” Strauss said. “A lot of the stuff we don’t know about has to do with dark energy and dark matter. These new detectors give us a whole new way of looking up at the sky. It’s comparable to when Galileo first started looking through a telescope.”

Strauss will graduate from Carleton this year and he’s looking forward to the next stage of his scientific career. “Certainly after this discovery, I want to stay within the study of gravitational physics, but probably not with LIGO,” he said. “I think I’d like to get more into the theoretical side.”

So far, Strauss has applied to nine universities all over the country to begin his graduate school studies. It’s probably a safe bet that he’ll be seen as an attractive candidate by all of them.

“I sort of hit the jackpot as far as going for my Ph.D.,” Strauss said.

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