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


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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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

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.

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