Corey M. Gray is a Siksika-goo-wan (Blackfoot) who grew up in Southern California. He earned dual Bachelor of Science degrees – one in physics and the other in applied mathematics – from Humboldt State University. Today he is an astronomer at Caltech’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO Hanford Observatory), one of only two LIGO facilities in the U.S.
Built in the arid Benton County, Washington State, the astronomical tool is an eight kilometer long L-shaped structure. Shortly after graduation, Gray was hired to install hardware for the first LIGO detector. He learned to operate the device and collect data on cosmic gravitational waves moving at the speed of light. “Black holes will sometimes merge and create gravitational waves just before merging and then go quiet,” says Gray, who eventually became the lead operator for the Hanford Observatory LIGO.
LIGO collects data on the merging of black holes from long ago and anything else that may make gravitational movement in outer space. Gravitational waves are recorded by using mirrors, laser beams, and hardware installed by Cory’s team. Instruments required frequent modification as this was experimental and the science was new. The second LIGO in Louisiana is necessary because LIGO requires two widely separated detectors operated in unison to rule out false signals.
The machine made its first detection of a real event on September 14, 2015, coincidentally on the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. This detection greatly supports Einstein’s work. From Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves as part of the theory of general relativity. In Einstein’s theory, space and time are aspects of a single measurable reality called space-time. Matter and energy are two expressions of a single material. We can think of space-time as a fabric; the presence of large amounts of mass or energy distorts space-time – in essence causing the fabric to ‘warp’ – and we observe this warpage as gravity. Freely falling objects – whether soccer balls, satellites, or beams of starlight – simply follow the most direct path in this curved space-time. When large masses move suddenly, some of this space-time curvature ripples outward, spreading in much the way as ripples on the surface of an agitated pond. When two dense objects such as neutron stars or black holes orbit each other, space-time is stirred by their motion and gravitational energy ripples throughout the universe.”
Asked how LIGO’s detections and recordings of the gravitational waves help us understand the universe, Gray tells First Nations Drum that a good chunk of astronomy can be explained by Newton’s law of gravity (for example how planets move around the Sun). “We can get information from stars by looking at them in telescopes, radio dishes, etc. But this is only a small part of our universe. Our universe is incomprehensibly large, and in this large universe there are big objects (such as black holes) and strong-gravity events that happen quite often,” said Gray. “Gravitational waves come from these types of events, and we can learn something completely new and different with gravitational wave signals.”
Gray says that before LIGO’s detections “all we had to work with when we looked up at the stars was light. Light is something which happens from atomic reactions going on in objects like stars. Gravitational waves are generated by the actual objects. So it is like we have a completely new sense to get information about our universe. Gravitational wave astronomy has barely just started. We have ideas of new things we will detect, but the real exciting thing is we will definitely get some completely big surprises, too—something we had no idea about. And with all of this we get to learn more about the universe around us.”
The word on LIGO findings spread quickly because they were published translated into multiple languages, including the Siksika language. General Theory of Relativity translates to: bisaatsinsiimaan; Gravitational waves translates to: Abuduuxbiisiiy o? bigimskAAsts (meaning “things that stick together, ripples in the water”); Scientist translates to: mugagyabiguwAx (meaning “all encompassing smart person”); Black Holes translate to: sigooxgiya; Universe translates to: spuu?ts.
Many more translated words, pondered by the mind of Gray’s mother Sharon Yellow Fly, is found in official LIGO documents and online.