Wave of the Century

Originally published in ANU Reporter:

The discovery of gravitational waves is the culmination of a search by a generation of ANU physicists, reports DR PHIL DOOLEY, BSc (Hons) ’90, PhD ’99.

An excited hush fell over the briefing room at Parliament House as Professor David McClelland stepped up to the microphone.

“I’m pretty sure you all know by now but I want to say it. We’ve done it,” he said as his voice quavered.

Spontaneous applause broke out, as McClelland allowed himself a smile. Camera flashes popped and TV cameras zoomed in.

“We detected a wave that was generated 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes crashed into each another… the most violent event ever witnessed.”

The announcement was sweet reward for McClelland, an ANU laser physicist who has spent his career working towards this moment.

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves but thought they were too small for humans to ever detect.

To prove Einstein wrong and right in a single stroke is rare treat for a scientist.

“This is a moment that will be remembered for a thousand years,” McClelland said.

Gravitational waves are vibrations of space and time themselves, one of the most outlandish predictions of Einstein’s 1916 General Theory of Relativity. Yet, they appeared exactly as predicted and join the long list of successes of Einstein’s theory over the last century.

The first success of Relativity came three years after Einstein’s publication, when a solar eclipse allowed astronomers to pick out the tiny deflection of distant starlight by the sun’s gravity.


Faraday Cage: using a foil Twisties packet to hide from your boss

There’s been a lot of news about the electrician who got busted hiding his phone/PDA in a foil Twisties packet to prevent his company from tracking him… so he could go play golf.

So I decided to give it a whirl, in some chocolate wrapper. And then try out the microwave. but that wasn’t so successful!



How a guitar steals energy from the future

From Physics in the Pub 2016, a great set from Leon Twardy about sound waves, how microphones work, and how an acoustic guitar steals energy from the future.


Sound and fire = complicated!

The Rubens Tube is a really complicated demo that seems simple. Once you start thinking about it you realise that sound antinodes are points of oscillating pressure, so the flames shouldn’t be stable peaks – they should be going up and down at the frequency of the wave!

And if you change the gas pressure a lot the nodes and antinodes reverse position! Wish I’d thought these points through before Derek asked me to film this!



Using antimatter to find weirdo supernovae

Fiona Panther is searching out galaxy for antimatter – no it’s not science fiction, she’s after anti – electrons, called positrons. It’ll help her to study supernovae – exploding stars.

Fi is a PhD student at ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Mt Stromlo.

Filmed at Physics in the Pub, 2016, Smith’s Alternative. Supported by Australian Institute of Physics and National Science Week.


How to study Astronomy with a balloon

We know PhD students like to do things on the cheap… well Ryan Ridden-Harper is doing high altitude astronomy – like the Hubble space telescope – but with no expensive satellite, just a weather balloon. He hopes it will give nice cheap insights into dark energy!


Quantum cabbage and blue wine

A surprise find of blue wine in the washing up opened up a world of chemistry in the kitchen.

Turns out red wine and purple cabbage show amazing colours as you change their acidity. They are acid-base indicators, due to chemicals called anthocyanins.



Gravitational Waves – behind the scenes

I had the honour to interview David Reitze, one of the leaders in gravitational wave physics, when he visited Canberra earlier this year.

Bit surprised he wasn’t one of the Nobel laureates… but anyway, ahead of the exciting announcement tomorrow, (what have they found this time?!),  here’s the interview.


And for those who just want the highlights:


Superconductors – the magic of meissner effect


Some lovely footage of superconductors weaving their magical levitation spell

One from the archives from Eurofusion.