SPAN Magazine | Making Waves
By Jason Chiang July/August 2016
Karan Jani’s groundbreaking work as part of the team at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory led to the detection of a gravitational wave and proving Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Since his childhood, Karan Jani was curious about the universe. His educational journey led him to the United States, where he became a star astrophysics researcher at both Pennsylvania State University and Georgia Institute of Technology. Earlier this year, his groundbreaking work with other scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) led to the detection of a gravitational wave, opening a window into the way we understand the cosmos and proving Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Excerpts from an interview.
Growing up in Gujarat, what was the role of science during your youth, and how did it become your passion?
The first actual scientific concept I remember learning was at the age of 16, when my teacher explained the term “infinity.” I distinctly remember him saying that one cannot understand our universe if one cannot appreciate the concept of infinity. That night, I looked at the stars for hours and kept forming my naïve model of an “infinite universe.” After graduating from high school, I ended up choosing physics because it seemed like the only logical way to understand the universe.
When you arrived in the United States for higher education, what were the most distinct differences you observed—academically and culturally?
Academically, the most significant change was the comforting environment where free discussion can take place. While at Penn State, I was addressing the deans and chairs by their first names. It seems like a minor non-academic thing, but it removed the barrier for me to learn.
American culture was a huge shock for me. But over time, my interaction with classmates, other international students and even Indian students from outside Gujarat completely transformed my opinions about American culture and society. This exposure to different cultures and perspectives has been the most rewarding part of my U.S. education.
What first inspired your interest in Albert Einstein’s theories on relativity, gravitational waves and black holes?
In my freshman year at Penn State, I started working on gravitational waves. By sophomore year, I was invited to spend a summer at the Albert Einstein Institute in Germany. In my junior year, I spent a few months working on black holes at Canada’s Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where the great Stephen Hawking serves as research chair. Every year, you learn so much more that the inspiration is constant.
Can you briefly help our readers understand the scientific significance of your LIGO team’s black hole/gravitational wave discovery? How does it alter the scientific research landscape and what is next for your research now that this discovery has been made?
About 100 years ago, Einstein wrote the most significant paper of his life, “General Theory of Relativity.” Shortly after, this theory predicted the existence of black holes and gravitational waves. A few decades later, the U.S. National Science Foundation funded its most ambitious international science project: Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). After decades of effort by hundreds of scientists globally, LIGO detected a confirmed gravitational wave on September 14, 2015. It came from a collision of two black holes, and the signal exactly matched the supercomputer simulations that I do at Georgia Tech. Now that we know black holes exist in the universe, my main research interest is to find more of them using LIGO. Black holes help us answer some of the fundamental questions regarding the formation and evolution of our universe.
Your meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have been a great experience. What main takeaways did you have from this?
Meeting the Prime Minister was as unbelievable as being part of the black hole discovery. Nothing brings more satisfaction to my personal journey than seeing that science and technology are at the forefront of development in India.
The most important point he raised was to create human resources and forums where we can engage more students to be part of such fundamental science. One suggestion for us was to give lectures at Indian universities about our gravitational waves discovery and the proposed LIGO-India project—something I look forward to doing this summer.
Finally, do you have any advice for other young aspiring scientists? What are the most valuable lessons you have learned along your educational journey thus far?
It may be a cliché, but education is a never-ending process. I have the same struggles learning new concepts today as I did in my freshman year at Penn State.
The journey started with the curiosity of understanding the universe, and there is still so much we don’t know about it. I may not even know about it in my lifetime, but I have to keep the ball rolling so the next generation can find answers and be part of further breakthrough discoveries. That is our proud scientific tradition.
Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.