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Blackfoot LIGO Operator Fills Einstein’s Shoes, Finds Gravitational Waves (and Makes a Few of His Own)

Blackfoot/Siksika astrophysicist Corey Gray talks about being lead operator on LIGO in Washington State, and about discovering gravitational waves.

After 100 years of scientific inquiry into whether cataclysmic astrophysical events unleash gravitational waves into the fabric of space-time as theorized by Albert Einstein, scientists detected these ripples of gravity on September 14, 2015, using a pair of giant detectors known as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). They announced their momentous discovery to the world on February 11. 

Indian Country Today Media Network illuminates this wondrous event in a conversation with Corey Gray, a Siksika Nation (Northern Blackfoot) member and the lead operator for the LIGO located at the Hanford Observatory in Washington State, one of two such facilities in the United States. The other is in Louisiana.

What was it like, actually detecting the gravitational waves last September?

The detection was made around 1:50am Pacific Standard Time on September 14. We operators work on shifts 24/7 when we are collecting data. My shift was 4 p.m. to midnight the night before. My shift was a bit rough in that scientists were working on the machine for most of it, but as they were finishing up for the night they handed the machine over to me, and I took the detector to a state where it was almost ready to collect data.

My morning ritual is waking up and checking e-mail. As I was still wiping sleep from my eyes, I was a bit taken aback by some interesting e-mail traffic—e-mails regarding a possible "real event.” There were probably two trains of thought. The first thought was, "This was us and is probably just a test." The second was, "Could this actually be real?"

The latter is a life-changing thought. So I did do a bit of daydreaming about what it would mean to have finally made a first detection. I'm but one of thousands of people who have worked on this project over the years. The masterminds behind it have been working on it since the Sixties. And everything is due to Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity from 1915. When you think of the detection in the scope of the history, it's monumental.

It was also very cool to be a part of the whole process of how we handled sharing this potential discovery with the world. The first few months were devoted to vetting the data. We really had to be sure the event was real. Then there was ‘The Paper’ to write. And toward the end, I joined a group preparing how to announce the discovery. Seeing how a large scientific group announces a huge discovery like this was awesome.

In what ways does this detection open up a new way of observing and studying the universe?

Many aspects of LIGO’s discovery are monumental. First, gravitational waves were directly detected for the first time. Second is our direct observation of black holes. Third is the confirmation of a part of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Last is a completely new field of astronomy, which immediately began after this first detection.

All other observations from astronomy come from electromagnetic radiation, which can be thought of as ‘visual’ waves. Humans can detect a tiny band of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, which is the visual light, but there are infrared, ultraviolet, x-rays, radio, etc. Conversely, ‘observable’ gravitational waves come from accelerations from big and dense objects themselves, such as black holes and neutron stars.

Gravitational waves give us much different information compared to electromagnetic waves and open up a completely new world of astronomy because these signals come from extreme events of gravity. So we will be looking for events from unfathomably big events that have been elusive to us up until now! This is uncharted territory, and it is totally exciting.

How is this new discovery life-changing for you? For humanity?

Personally it is life changing because my work is now done in a completely different light. I am one of a thousand people in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and for almost two decades I've been focused on small projects: helping build the machine, running the detector as part of an operator team and becoming a supervisor to the LIGO Hanford Observatory Operator team.

Ever since the morning of September 14, everything’s changed. We all now have to look at the big picture. Our machine, in one fell swoop, has made history and burst open a completely new field of astronomy! This is life-changing because now we open a new window to the universe, and our work is now firmly connected with one of Albert Einstein’s greatest works. It truly is surreal! I'm one of many in this project. I count myself lucky to work with an amazing team!

I have given talks to students on field trips to the observatory, have exhibited at Career Fairs at AISES [American Indian Science & Engineering Society] and SACNAS [Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences] and have given talks around the community. Everything focused on only the machine and our work. Now the context of our work is part of the broader story of humanity.

Photo: Kim Fetrow

Desks full of computers, and walls covered with projection screens and large monitors keep LIGO's interferometer operators busy as they monitor the instrument's status 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What circumstances led you to your work on the LIGO project in 1998?

It was my first job right after college. I hung out at home for a few months immediately after graduating and had the opportunity to raise/take care of my sisters while my [archaeologist] mom was on a dig in Jordan. So for a few months I got my sisters ready for school every morning—I became a pro at braiding their hair. I eventually started looking for work, and one day I came across a job announcement for an optics position for an astronomy project in Washington State. I jumped at it.

What do you do there?

For the first few years, most of us were there to build the initial LIGO detector. After it was built, a few of us ran the machine as operators; we worked on shifts for 24/7 coverage. We detected nothing with that first detector, but what we learned was priceless. We all then started to build the Advanced LIGO detector. Toward the end of this build I was promoted to lead operator of the operator team at the Washington observatory. In September our detector was ready, and we started our first shifts running this completely new machine.

Photo: Courtesy Corey Gray

Corey Gray, lead operator at the LIGO facility in Washington State that helped detect gravitational waves, and his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, who translated the initial press release into Blackfoot/Siksika.

Did you grow up in your culture?

I grew up in southern California as standard city kid. Our parents would take us to a pow wow every once in a while, and we would take an annual trip up to the rez. My mother is a fluent speaker of Siksika (Blackfoot), but because of her generation's boarding school experience I believe this is a reason why my generation did not get to experience some of our culture and customs. But my mother has a degree in anthropology and produced a Blackfoot Dictionary—a work she dedicated to her children. Because of this and my connection with LIGO's discovery, I jumped on the opportunity to get our press release translated into Blackfoot by my mother, Sharon Yellowfly.

RELATED: Gravitational Waves: Historic Astronomical Findings, Explained in Siksika (Blackfoot)

What is your educational background?

I went to Humboldt State University (HSU) and received Bachelor's of Science degrees in physics and applied mathematics.

What inspired you to get involved in astronomy and physics?

My father is an electrical engineer. He was always working on projects in the garage, and this was a major influence for my pull to the sciences. Oh, and MacGyver! I loved watching that show when I was a kid. I wanted to be a Siksika MacGyver!

Did you face any barriers and/or encouragement as a Native American?

Other than the lack of role models, there were other opportunities that helped me through some tough studies. At HSU we were lucky to have a few excellent programs for Native students. I can't stress the importance of the Native community there and also a few Native programs that were around when I was there: INRSEP [Indians in Natural Resources, Science, and Engineering Program], ITEPP [Indian Tribal and Educational Personnel Program] and AIA [American Indian Alliance]. A couple of other national Native science programs of importance were AISES and SACNAS.

I remember my first semester away from home in the dorms, and being at a point where I was so homesick. I was so close to quitting, and I missed my family and friends. But this was when INRSEP stepped in and became the family I needed. I actually got to learn more about my culture during my college years. There was a student drum, and this is where I learned to sing pow wow, and during an internship through AISES I met someone who taught me to grass dance. I believe these activities helped enrich my collegiate experience and also helped me graduate.

Former astronaut Commander Jim Herrington told ICTMN that “our ability to fly in space and explore is due to the collective efforts of a multitude of talented people, many of them trained in the STEM fields.” What can we do to interest Native youth to embark on a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) path?

I think it's on us. I think having people like Commander Herrington, myself and others getting out there (in public media, visits/talks, etc.) are big. I think it means so much for Native youth to see people like them in some really cool fields. We need to figure out a way for science to be seen as cool!

RELATED: From Space to Indigenous Ancestral Engineering: Commander John Herrington Charts New Territory

Science, technology and engineering is fun for kids. How can we make mathematics fun, too?

I think STEM is a passport. It's a way to see the world.