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Celebrating Einstein

Albert Einstein. Courtesy Library of Congress.


You don't have to consider yourself an Einstein to appreciate – and even build upon – the work of one of history's greatest thinkers.

After all, Albert Einstein, the German-born physicist best known for E = mc2 and the theory of relativity, once said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."

In April 2017, West Virginia University celebrated Einstein with a month-long series of lectures, rooftop telescope observing events, art displays, robotics and other activities.  

But WVU has had a connection to Einstein long before now that will endure for years to come.

Here are some examples of how Mountaineers are keeping Einstein's legacy alive.

Cracking the cosmos

Sean McWilliams (front) participates in "A Shout Across Time," a danced lecture on Einstein's theory of general relativity, black holes and gravitational waves.

Sean McWilliams (front) participates in "A Shout Across Time," a danced lecture on Einstein's theory of general relativity, black holes and gravitational waves.

Sean McWilliams describes a major discovery in physics that Einstein predicted this way:

“At 5:51 a.m. Sept. 14, 2015, something went ‘chirp,’” he wrote.

That “chirp” – from two black holes colliding in space more than a billion light years away – fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, a framework envisioning that dense objects cause a distortion in spacetime, which is felt as gravity.

McWilliams, mathematics assistant professor Zach Etienne, master's mathematics student Caleb Devine and physics and astronomy doctoral student Belinda Cheeseboro were part of the team — LIGO, short for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory — that cracked the code by detecting invisible ripples in spacetime. Their observation proves that energy travels in waves across space and time, leaving unique distortions along its path.

Read more about the discovery from our archives.

Laying the groundwork

Maura McLaughlin

McWilliams isn't the first WVU faculty member to follow Einstein’s lead in studying gravitational waves.  

Astrophysics professor Maura McLaughlin is chair of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center, which is also on the hunt for gravitational waves.

In 2015, the WVU Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology was launched, bringing together researchers from physics and astronomy, mathematics and engineering. McLaughlin directs the center, which collaborates with NASA and faculty at other universities to detect gravitational waves.

Teenage radio wave hunters

One of WVU's most prominent sources of discovery is the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope, nestled in a rural West Virginia town of 143.  

Over the years, WVU has invested in the Green Bank Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va. and researchers, including Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer, have used data from the observatory as they hunt radio waves.  

The observatory also provides data to Einsteins-in-training, high school students across the U.S. who have discovered pulsars by sifting through data from the Green Bank Telescope. The project is a collaboration of the Green Bank Observatory and WVU with funding from the National Science Foundation.

Take a look at how the collaboratory is growing young scientists.

Messages from Anonymous

Duncan Lorimer

In 2007, astrophysics professor Duncan Lorimer and undergraduate David Narkevic happened upon a signal that is now known as the first fast radio burst.

Scientists have discovered more of them in the intervening years, but no one’s really sure what they are. There’s been speculation that it could be coming from aliens, of course. We do know that, unlike pulsar stars that emit powerful radio bursts at regular intervals, the fast radio bursts are not regularly occurring.

“It could turn out that they’re really rather mundane, and we might not be using them for very much,” Lorimer says with a wry laugh. “Right now it’s an interesting race just to figure out what they are and worry about it after that.”

Read the full story in our archives.

Einstein and the arts  

Hey, who said Einstein is all about hard science and complex formulas?

To complement WVU's Celebrating Einstein event, artists, dancers and musicians bid tribute to Einstein's work in their own talented way.

Morgantown-area ceramic artist Sarah Guerry made black hole bowls and gravitational wave detection mugs for the event, while the WVU School of Theatre and Dance helped present a "danced" lecture on Einstein's theory of general relativity, black holes and gravitational waves.

Black hole ceramics

A black hole bowl.

Kathryn Williamson, teaching assistant professor of physics and astronomy and manager of the WVU Planetarium who also organized the Celebrating Einstein event, even showcased some of her own artwork depicting “spacetime.” When you're in town, make reservations to see a planetarium show. Coming soon will be a show on “Einstein's Gravity Playlist” that will focus on Einstein's theory of relativity that predicted gravitational waves.  

Spacetime artwork by Kathryn Williamson.

Spacetime by Kathryn Williamson.

Find out more about how WVU celebrates Einstein.

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