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Nergis Mavalvala

Nergis Mavalvala
00:00 / 03:55

This is Nergis Mavalvala. Listening to her speak has gotten me SO jazzed about astrophysics. I am NOT a scientist so prepare yourself for some major nerding out and simplification. 


Nergis was born in 1968 in Lahore Pakistan and raised in Karachi Pakistan. She speaks of her early education teaching her how to think. That the key really is not what you learn but learning how to ask questions. Her family supported her curiosity and encouraged her to pursue higher education in the United States.


She attended Wellesley College studying physics and astronomy. Later, she went on to get a PhD at MIT. It was not until after college that Nargis recognized her sexual orientation and attraction to women. 


Mavalavala being out and proud queer woman of color and Pakistin immigrant, defies steriotypes. Nergis has been breaking down stereotypes throughout her life. Growing up, her family never observed or enforced traditional gender roles. This openness is what gave Nergis the confidence to break into male dominated field of science. 


While at MIT, Nergis developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. This translate into her work at Caltech eventually leading into a collaboration of these two organizations called LIGO. Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.


Ok. So I had no idea what a gravitational-wave was. It comes out Einstein's theory of relativity. Basically, before Einstein, we could only observe the universe based on light. But there are things like black holes which you can guess from the name, don’t admit light. With this theory, we could observe the universe based on gravity or the ripples and waves sent out.


Einstein described space-time of the universe as a sort fabric, like the stretchy fabric in front of you. An object, like a star, placed on it creates a curve. This curve can pull smaller towards it, into orbit. Now think, if bounce an object you’d get some ripples. 


Objects don’t bounce but they rotate. And two massive objects rotating around each other could create some waves. Now you might not be able to get things going fast enough in this little box but maybe you can play a bit and get the idea.


Being able to capture the movement of gravitational waves would prove Einstein's concept and open up a whole new way to explore and learn about the universe. 


This is what got Mavalvala excited and she devoted her work to capturing this. At LIGO there are two mirrors placed 4 km apart. With lasers these mirror’s are detecting change ten-thousandth the charge diameter of a proton. Insanely small amounts of movement. So little that they had to develop a way to make the mirrors a trillion times stiller than just setting a mirror on the ground.


On the 14th of September 2015 at 5:51am LIGO detected gravitational-waves for the very first time. They estimated the waves were created by two black holes “about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and the event took place 1.3 billion light years ago.”

Here is an augmentation of what they captured:


[[ Gravitational Wave Clip ]]


May not sound like too much but it is an enormous scientific achievement, possibly the greatest in this century.


Nergis Mavalvala’s notoriety skyrocketed! But she’s stayed grounded. She always credits the full team of scientists when she speaks. Her talks are broken down into very relatable terms; translating complex science into digestible stories. The love for her work is tangible in the way she speaks.


Pakistan has become very proud to call her one of their own. Many television programs have interviewed her and she’s become a hero to young girls there interstea in science. 


A single detection of gravitational-wave could constitute a life’s accomplishment and one could easily retire on that. But Mavalvala kept on and LIGO captured a second detection in 2017. Nergis Mavalvala curiosity and sense of wonder are insaciable. She continues to work today because ‘there is so much of the universe left to discover’.

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