Mar 9: Cape Cod Community College Lecture: Nergis Mavalvala

Spring Presidential Series 2011
Wednesday, March 9 at 7 PM
Tilden Arts Center, Main Theater
Cape Cod Community College

The Cape Cod Technology Council is excited to promote this talk by Nergis Mavalvala, Professor of Astrophysics, MIT, and MacArthur Foundation Fellow 2010.

Come take a guided tour of work being done to clearly identify and measure forces around us and well beyond that had been purely theoretical in Einstein’s day. Meet the young, dynamic astrophysicist who developed the first working prototype device for detecting gravitational waves throughout the universe, and whose work today earned her the prestigious “Genius Award” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Dr. Mavalvala is known for her charming and accessible ability to discuss her work with non-specialists. She was a protégé of Dr. Phyllis Fleming, one of the first women physics PhDs in the country, a Wellesley professor for 50 years who died 2 years ago in her 80s but who tutored math and physics at Cape Cod Community College for several years before her health began to fail. The college has a physics/math scholarship in Dr. Fleming’s honor.

Nergis Mavalvala is a physicist whose research links the world of quantum mechanics, normally apparent only at the atomic scale, with some of the most powerful, yet elusive, forces in the cosmos. Although predicted by General Relativity Theory, gravitational waves—fluctuations in space-time curvature that propagate as waves in a pond—are very difficult to observe directly. As a graduate student, Mavalvala developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. This early work led to the identification of an important stabilization principle that was later incorporated into the design for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a collaboration among scores of physicists and currently the most sensitive observatory of its kind. Mavalvala’s more recent research focuses on minimizing, if not circumventing, barriers imposed by quantum physics on the precision of standard optical interferometers. One strategy she uses is to cool the device’s mirrors into a coherent quantum state. Applying strategies such as this at the scale of the LIGO instruments (i.e., kilogram-scale mirrors separated by kilometers) has the potential to boost significantly the sensitivity of the device. Through this and other technically challenging, unconventional approaches, Mavalvala is making fundamental contributions to physics at the intersection of optics, condensed matter, and quantum mechanics. Her experimental advances are enhancing our ability to detect and quantify gravitational radiation with still greater precision, data that may be critical to incorporating gravitation within a unified theory of the basic forces in the universe.

Nergis Mavalvala received a B.A. (1990) from Wellesley College and a Ph.D. (1997) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prior to her appointment to the faculty of the Department of Physics at M.I.T. in 2002, she was a postdoctoral fellow (1997-–2000) and research scientist (2000– 2002) at the LIGO Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

The MacArthur Fellows Program

The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.

The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. In keeping with this purpose, the Foundation awards fellowships directly to individuals rather than through institutions. They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers.

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. The MacArthur Fellowship is a “no strings attached” award in support of people, not projects. Each fellowship comes with a stipend of $500,000 to the recipient, paid out in equal quarterly installments over five years.