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Science

'I started shaking' - physicist in Germany was one of the first to see gravitational waves

Hanover-based researcher Dr Andrew Lundgren tells DW he was one of the first to hear the sound of a gravitational wave. He says Germany has played a key role in the international quest to prove Einstein's theory.

Scientists announced Thursday (11.02.2016) they had

directly detected gravitational waves

for the first time.

In doing so, they appear to have proven physicist Albert Eintein's

century-old theory

about the ripples created by violent occurences in the cosmos, which travel through space-time.

In a landmark announcement, The US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) confirmed the culmination of more than four decades of international research.

Among those singled out for praise were Germany-based astronomers and physicists based at the Albert Einstein Institute (AEI) in Postdam and Hannover, where a smaller gravitational wave detector (GEO600) has been developed.

DW spoke to Dr. Andrew Lundgren, a researcher at GEO600, who carries out so-called detector characterization and whose job it was to try to disprove the initial claim that a gravitational wave had been identified.

DW: Dr. Lundgren, you were one of the first people on planet earth to hear this sound. Can you tell us how you came to hear it?

Andrew Lundgren: It was on a Monday (14th September). We were getting ready to start a couple of months of collecting data with the instruments, and just before lunchtime, Marco Drago ran into my office and said he'd seen something.

We were wondering if it was a test, or if there was just something wrong with the instruments. So we spent some time checking the status, just to make sure it was real, because it was unexpectedly loud, unexpectedly perfect.

And then, as soon as we were convinced that there was nothing we could find wrong with it, we alerted everybody.

How did you feel when you realized that this was a legitimate signal, a gravitational wave?

It was a while before it really sank in. We do a number of tests including a blind test, where we make a signal in the instrument [the gravitational wave detector]. Everyone knows that can happen, but they don't tell us if they're doing it. So for a while, we thought it could be that.

But later that day, we were told it had been so early in the run [of the new detector] that they weren't even ready for testing. This was on a call that I was leading about the detector, and I started shaking.

Since then, it's just been months and months of work to write these papers, to be certain about what we saw, and to keep running the instrument as well.

Were you told 'do not say a word about this'?

Yes, that's always the way we do things. Gravitational waves are very difficult to detect and to be sure of. It's not worth getting people excited, and we need to just focus on our work, so we're quiet about it while we are analyzing it.

But a collaboration of 1,000 people - we all have people down the hall, we sometimes talk too loudly in our offices, or maybe we leave something sitting on our desk. So leaks can happen. But I'm glad we got to tell our story the way we wanted to.

Germany has been mentioned a number of times as really contributing to the field of research on gravitational waves. What is going on in Germany that gets you excited about the future?

There are so many things. LISA pathfinder is something that has just launched. That's a mission to start testing technology for building one of these detectors in space. A lot of the work for that has gone on at Hanover.

There's also GEO600 as well as a little prototype detector where we test out all sorts of new technologies.

One of the really neat ones is Quantum Squeezing, where you actually mess around with Quantum Mechanics and make the instrument much more sensitive by squeezing the vacuum.

In addition to that, we've got this Atlas Cluster technology, where we do all sorts of big simulations and big searches for gravitational waves.

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