Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala in Silicon Valley

Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, MIT professor and member of Nobel Prize winner LIGO team, visited Pakistani-American Community Center (PACC) in Silicon Valley on February 24, 2018. She was invited by PACC founder Mr. Mohammad Asghar Aboobaker to talk about her inspirational work and meet with the community members, particularly Pakistani-American children in the Valley.

Riaz Haq (R) with Dr. Nergis Mavalvala
Who is Nergis?

Nergis was born in Lahore and raised in Karachi before coming to the United States in 1986. She completed her Ph.D. in Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1997. She did her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss that included developing a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. Currently, she is Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is also the Associate Head of the Department of Physics.

Gravitational Waves: 

In her brief presentation attended by over 100 people including boys and girls, Nergis explained Albert Einstein's gravitational wave theory and described her work in confirming the theory by detecting gravitational waves in Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project.

LIGO - A Gigantic Interferometer


Gravitational waves are the disturbances in the fabric ("curvature") of spacetime generated by accelerated stars and propagate as waves outward from their source at the speed of light. She compared the gravitational waves with the curvature and the ripples produced in a trampoline when a heavy ball is placed in the middle and bounced on it.

All Stars Die:

Nergis explained that all stars, like the sun in our solar system, are born, grow and eventually die. Our sun too will die but she assured her audience that it won't happen for over a billion years. She described black holes as big stars whose light can not escape due to their massive gravity.  Huge amounts of energy are released when these massive stars collide with each other and new ones are born.

Dr. Mavalvala at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker
Neutron stars are created when giant stars die in supernovas and their cores collapse, with the protons and electrons essentially melting into each other to form neutrons.  Given the extremely small waves of about 1000 times smaller than a proton, the equipment required for detecting them must be extremely sensitive to tiny disturbances. LIGO equipment uses giant shock absorbers to eliminate extraneous perturbations that can alter the result.

Detected gravitational waves help scientists understand how large and how far away the colliding stars are, and allow them to recreate the moments before they collided. After such collisions, the measurements of optical light and electromagnetic waves fill in the blanks that gravitational waves can’t answer.

Dr. Mavalvala at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker

Origins of Gold: 

In answer to my question about the events detected by LIGO team, Nergis said the gravitational waves generated by these neutron star collisions occurred over a billion years ago at a distance of a billion light years.  From optical light and electromagnetic measurements after these collisions, the scientists were able to conclude that the resulting explosion from a neutron star merger produces heavy elements like gold, platinum, and uranium. These collisions occurred well after the Big Bang that is believed to have happened about 13.7 billion years ago.  Detecting events that occurred closer to the Big Bang would take much more sensitive equipment than currently available to LIGO team.

Audience at PACC. Photo Credit: Nasreen Aboobaker

Summary: 

Pakistani-American Astrophysicist Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, MIT professor and member of Nobel Prize winner LIGO team, visited Pakistani-American Community Center (PACC) in Silicon Valley on February 24, 2018. She was invited by PACC founder Mr. Mohammad Asghar Aboobaker to talk about her work and meet with the community members. Mavalvala and her fellow team members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project have opened new vistas in human pursuit to solve the mysteries of our universe. The collision of stars they have detected occurred over a billion years ago. With their new equipment they hope to go back further closer to the Big Bang to learn more about the creation of our universe.

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Comments

Shazad Shaikh said…
It was incredible hearing her. She came to talk about gravitational waves and the birth of heavy metals in space.

Normally we think of space as empty or nearly empty. When a star explodes the ejecta goes on to form metals and over time heavier and heavier metals like uranium, gold ,etc. As she explained these elements are mined on Earth but are created by the explosion of a star.

Incredibly satisfying to listen to her. She knew her subject cold
Riaz Haq said…
Dr. Frank Postberg and #Pakistani scientist Dr. Nozair Khawaja of #Heidelberg University in #Germany have identified fragments of large organic molecules in ice grains ejected from geysers in #Saturn's moon #Enceladus' icy exterior. #Pakistan

https://nypost.com/2018/06/28/saturns-moon-could-be-harboring-alien-life/

It hasn’t even been a couple of days since the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced the detection of complex organic material originating from a moon orbiting Saturn that can probably sustain some life form. And understandably, the euphoria and excitement of this discovery has been felt across the world, in scientific communities and among ordinary citizens.

But little is known about the Pakistani man who, along with Prof Dr Frank Postberg, has co-led a team of world-class scientists that published this groundbreaking research in the prestigious science journal, Nature.

Meet Dr Nozair Khawaja. Hailing from a small rural area of Wazirabad, Khawaja belonged to a middle-class family. He left home first to complete his Master’s degree in Space Science from the Punjab University, before heading to the Heidelberg University, Germany, to pursue a doctoral degree. And it was in Germany that he immersed himself in planetary research and began working on NASA’s space mission “Cassini towards Saturn.”

Eos presents the first interview Dr Khawaja has granted to any Pakistani publication.

Eos meets the young man from the small town of Wazirabad whose groundbreaking research into one of Saturn’s moons has been published in the prestigious science journal Nature on June 28

Dr Khawaja, the world is fascinated by your new discovery but what makes it most exciting for you?

Well, to me, everything is very exciting, but for public interest, I would like to summarise. We found large and complex organic molecules from Enceladus. Previously, the mass spectrometers (CDA & INMS) onboard the Cassini spacecraft found small organic compounds coming out from Enceladus’ subsurface ocean. But this discovery is the very first detection of very large and complex organics coming from the extraterrestrial ocean world.

So, can Enceladus be colonised for the survival of human civilisation in future?

Space colonisation or space settlement should be understood as permanent human habitation on any other planet. And since Enceladus is very far from the Sun and the surface temperature at Enceladus is extremely cold, approximately -200 °C, which means that human colonisation of Enceladus is not possible.

The large and complex organic molecules that we found could have been contributed by non-living or living sources. We cannot say for sure that the origin of these molecules is living organisms, nor can we say that that life exists on Enceladus. Instead, we proposed that these molecules originated from hydrothermal vents inside Enceladus. Such a hydrothermal system also exists in the Earth’s ocean where microbial life exists. Therefore, the origins of these molecules are undecided but they have astro-biological potential.

https://www.dawn.com/news/1417071
Riaz Haq said…
Mansoor Ahmed - Ready for Your Close-Up?05.29.12


https://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/about/people/mahmed-og.html


Associate Director of the Astrophysics Project Division, Mansoor “Moonie” Ahmed, was born and raised in Peshawar, Pakistan in the northwest frontier area on the border with Afghanistan. “There was a movie house across the street from us and that’s how I got hooked on movies. At the age of six, I wanted to grow up to be an usher so I could see all the films for free,” remembers Ahmed.

Ahmed picked up his first video camera when his kids were born and began making movies of his friends and family, including local performing arts organizations. He had no formal training in cinematography. “That’s how I honed my filmmaking skills and learned editing techniques. I just watched a lot of films and read a lot of books on video making and directing,” he explains.


Mansoor "Moonie" Ahmed in his editing suite. Credit: M. Ahmed
From 1990 to about 1999, he was the Technical Director of the television show “Pakistan Vision,” which was produced by a friend. “I set up the studio in Burtonsville, Md., and then shot and edited the show.” Around 2003, this same friend was lamenting the passing of the heyday of the Pakistani movie industry in the 1960s and 70s and decided to produce a local, low-budget film to encourage Pakistani filmmakers to do the same. “I jumped on the idea. It was a chance for me to make a real film,” says Ahmed.

The result was a film called “Bhool,” which in Urdu, the language of Pakistan, means “An Error in Judgment.” Loosely based on an old Pakistani film, this version was modernized and focuses on women’s entitlement. “Everyone has an Achilles’ heel, a character flaw. This story is about a series of mistakes and misunderstandings stemming from everyone’s Achilles’ heel,” explains Ahmed. His cousin, an award-winning playwright living in Pakistan, wrote the screenplay. The actors were from the local performing arts groups Ahmed had been filming. “The leading lady had never acted before and she did the best job,” says Ahmed. “All of my family, including my wife and kids, and sisters-in-law, are extras in ‘Bhool.’ We all relied on friends and family to shoot.”

The film took five years to complete. “We were amateurs. We all had regular jobs, so we’d work on this film evenings and weekends. We were all volunteers,” says Ahmed. Their sole investor spent about $50,000 on cameras, lights, sound equipment, and a computer editing system. “Plus, he fed us.”

“Every scene had its own challenges and interests. Also, I had to change the actors’ mindset from being on the stage and using big movements to being on film and using more subtle movements,” explains Ahmed. He found editing to be the most interesting part of filmmaking. “The editing process allows you to create several options for how to move the story forward. The intellectual challenge is figuring out which one will work best with the audience. A technical challenge is creating a smooth looking scene using pieces taken from multiple takes of the same scene shot from different angles and perspectives. There are various reasons a scene may not be shot in one take. It could be the actor
Riaz Haq said…
A peek into the life and work of Pakistani astrophysicist at NASA, Mansoor Ahmed
"I believe the effort to instil within students love for science needs to start at the early stages of education."
https://www.dawn.com/news/1382259


Saadeqa KhanUpdated Jan 17, 2018 12:41pm
Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the alluring night sky, the glittering moon and countless stars over the horizon. All throughout my childhood, space sciences and astronomy remained my passion.

While researching personalities from all around the world in those fields, I always wondered why despite the fact there is no dearth of talent in the country, I was unable to find any instance of Pakistanis working for the National Air and Space Administration (NASA).

I got in touch with Dr Mohsin Siddique, director of the theoretical physics department at the National Center for Physics, Islamabad.

Through him I had the privilege of connecting with Mr Mansoor Ahmed, a Pakistani astrophysicist, who has been associated with NASA for almost 35 years and is currently serving as the associate director of the Astrophysics Projects Division, as well as the programme manager for the Physics of the Cosmos programme and the Cosmic Origins programme at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland.

Mr Ahmed has spent most of his career working at the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) programme in different capacities, including as flight operations manager and the project manager for HST operations.

He was the deputy project manager of the James Web Space Telescope (JWST) and the project manager of the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) mission, a collaborative endeavour between NASA and the European Space Agency.

Here, I ask the impressive gentleman his success story, from his childhood in Peshawar to his work with NASA.

You were born and grew up in Peshawar. Can you tell us your family background? Do you recall any interesting story from your childhood/teenage years?

My father was a Subedar-major in the army. We lived in Peshawar, near Fort Bala Hissar.

For the first five years of my education, I went to a Christian mission school and from sixth grade onwards, I attended the Government Higher Secondary School.

Our house was across the street from Naaz cinema, the only cinema in the city that played English-language films. This is where I got my first exposure to films.

My father took me to see The Vikings and I was hooked from then on, even though, I didn’t really understand any English at that time.

My answer to the question 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' was: 'I want to become the ticket collector at Naaz cinema so that I can see every film playing there.'

One day, I was visiting some relatives who lived right next to the Pakistan Air Force base in Peshawar and I witnessed an F-86 land on the runway. As the plane taxied, I could see the cockpit and the pilot.

The pilot waved at me as he passed by and right then my career goals changed. I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

At Government High School, a close friend of mine, Ayub, told me about the Air Force cadet academy in Lower Topa, a tiny town near Murree.

It consists of a boarding school that selects 60 children each year as pre-cadets, to prepare them to enter the air force flying academy after FSc. Ayub said he was applying and encouraged me to the same.

Fortunately, both of us got selected and we entered Lower Topa in May of 1966, at the age of 13.

In Pakistan it is not common for parents to support their kids to pursue astronomy as a profession. Can you tell us how much encouragement you received from your family during the early years of your career? Would you encourage your own child if they were to prefer the same profession?

I think there are two aspects to this question. Parents are concerned about the livelihood of their children when they grow up.

They are concerned whether their children will be able to earn a living and support a family. So, their tendency is to push their kids towards careers that are known to provide a good living.

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