“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – I. Newton

Hi! My name is Zeno, I’m 25, and I come from Verona, Italy. I’m an experimental physicist and a few weeks ago I began my PhD at the University of Glasgow, UK, as an Early Stage Researcher within the Marie Curie ITN project 'GraWIToN', funded by the European Union.
In these few lines I’ll try and explain what ‘GraWIToN’ is and what my role would be as an ESR. I hope that my writing can convey at least a tiny fraction of the enthusiasm and expectations that I have for this experience, which will fill and shape the next three years of my life.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, traveling across the Universe at the speed of light. They are predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity (1915) and may originate, for example, as a consequence of the motion of massive astronomical objects, such as black holes or neutron stars. Although their existence is strongly supported by indirect evidence, they have never been observed directly.

Einstein on the waves

Albert on the waves...

The scientific community hopes to make the first direct detection within 2017. From that moment, a new era for astronomy will begin, because gravitational waves carry with them precious information on the physical nature of the objects which generated them. Such information is not accessible with the instruments we currently have, because they are all sensitive only to electromagnetic radiation. Gravitational wave detection will switch on a completely new ‘sense’, that will allow scientists to ‘hear’ about aspects of the Cosmos we know very little about.
So, why didn’t people just build GW detectors before?
Well, they tried, for more than 40 years! The problem is that the effects of gravitational waves on Earth are extremely small, and building an instrument able to measure them is a huge endeavour. Nowadays this challenge has been undertaken by hundreds of scientists all around the world, sharing their diverse expertise and background, from optics and interferometry to material science, from astrophysics to data analysis. In all these fields, the search for the first gravitational wave detection provided a motivation to push further the edges of knowledge. Many of the topics involved in GW detection are of interest for other areas of research, such as metrology, geodesy, and for industry as well. This is why the field is in great expansion and huge investments are being made.

Like other big experiments in science, gravitational wave detectors are km-sized, several millions-costing (in whatever currency) jewels of human ingenuity. Because of their great complexity, only a handful exists around the world, where all the resources can be concentrated. They strictly collaborate with each other, and I personally think that this kind of worldwide collaborations in science provide the mankind the most important of the results: showing that working together is possible to achieve what is impossible for one alone.

'GraWIToN' is one way in which Europe, as a Union, decided to take part to the game. The project has ambitious goals: to train a group of young scientists on the hottest topics in gravitational wave detection; to prepare them to lead tomorrow’s research in Europe; to foster research at European level, connecting institutions from different countries and encouraging mobility of scientists; to transfer technology from research to industry.
Even though I know it will be challenging to meet such expectations, being part of this program is an honour for me and I consider myself very lucky. I will have the possibility to carry out cutting edge research, working with the top institutions and people in the field.
Hopefully I will found some interesting results, and maybe, if I will be lucky enough to continue the career of researcher, a small advancement toward our understanding of the Universe will be due to my own work. It will be an infinitesimal droplet between thousands of other droplets, in the sea of all who came before me and will come after. But that will be my droplet. It’s an idea so powerful that sometimes it seems too big for my head.

In the meantime, I enjoy my life as a researcher, and I work in the best conditions I could imagine. And what’s more important: I have fun! Every day I learn new things, both about science (how it’s done, how you get money for your lab, how people 8000 km apart can work together) and of course in science.
At the University of Glasgow, my research focuses on the high precision optics that we need for the detectors to achieve their maximum sensitivity. The mirrors that are currently used in GW detectors are extremely sophisticated objects, however they are not perfect. Some of the light you shine on them, instead of being reflected coherently, is scattered around and goes where you don’t want it. Some other light is absorbed, stealing energy from the instrument and heating up the mirror. What I do is measure such effects and understand how they occur and why. I also compare the performances of mirrors made from different materials and with different manufacturing processes, to look for new solutions for the detectors of the future.

Outwith the lab, my formation as a ‘GraWIToN’ student will include periodic schools with my peers ESRs to provide a solid background in GW detection topics, outreach skills (like this newsletter) and project management.
To all the above, one must add the human experience of living abroad for a long period for the first time, that also adds lots of stimuli to my everyday life. I live in Scotland, which I personally love, and this can only make my experience richer.
I have just started, but I have been thrown since the very beginning into a twist of new things; these first weeks have been so dense that it seems to me to have been here since ages. Who knows what will be, I’ll try to be ready every day.

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