Getting Ready to Go

Mar 12, 2017

Chances are at some point in the last year you’ve heard me mentioning that I was heading off to America at some point in my PhD. You might well have heard me complaining about filling out forms to get a visa, about the uncertainty about which part of the USA I was going to, or even about how worried I was that I wouldn’t be able to get about while I was there (through not having a driving license).

Well, this is my last week in the UK for four months. I’ve learned how to drive (with a mishap or two along the way), I’ve been given a visa (and exhausted my supply of Mastercard-based jokes), and I know where I’m going. On Saturday morning I’ll be leaving Glasgow, headed for Baton Rouge, Louisiana (via New Jersey and Texas). I’m taking that trip to America. Now, this is more than just a holiday, in fact the purpose of the trip is entirely work-based (though I’m sure I’ll find at least some time to have some fun and do some sight-seeing).

Louisiana isn’t the first part of the world you’d expect an astronomer to be heading to visit an observatory, but that’s exactly what I’m off to do. I’m off to spend a few months at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), just outside a town called Livingston. Unlike the big optical observatories everyone knows (and loves!) in the mountain-tops of Hawaii and the Canaries, or the arid deserts of the Atacama, which need to be build above the clouds and far form the city lights, gravitational wave observatories need to be build as far as possible from noise. The sorts of noise we need to be worried about are pretty quiet too; the detectors are sensitive to the ground vibrations from tiny seismic tremors, which can be caused by traffic (and even people walking around nearby), so they need to be placed well outside built-up areas. Our detectors (as well as the one in Louisiana there’s another one in Washington State, on the Hanford Site) are also massive: they look like a set-square where each leg is 4-kilometres long. Finding a flat site which can house one of the detectors adds to the challenge (it’s pretty hard to think of many places in Scotland where you could put one!). These, along with numerous other scientific and technical considerations, have lead to there being a detector in the middle of swampland.

As someone who’s never spent more than a fortnight in temperatures of 20-celcius, this is going to get interesting. The forecast for the day I’m due to arrive is for a balmy 26 C. I guess I’ll not be packing the ski jacket then.