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Cutting-edge research at Leibniz Universität Hannover: technology development for sensational detection of gravitational waves

Scientist Karsten Danzmann makes crucial contribution to first ever observation of black holes and confirmation of the Theory of Relativity

The epochal detection, announced yesterday, proving Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity would not have been possible without scientific expertise and laser technology from Hannover. Together with his team, Professor Karsten Danzmann, Head of the Institute of Gravitation Physics at Leibniz Universität Hannover and Director of the Albert Einstein Institute (a cooperation between the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics and Leibniz Universität), developed measurement technology for the two big gravitational wave detectors in the USA that directly measured gravitational waves for the first time ever on 14 September 2015. The sensational observation by the LIGO observatories in Livingston (Louisiana) and Hanford (Washington) was presented to the public yesterday in parallel press conferences, also at Leibniz Universität Hannover. The measurements - signals of two black holes merging - confirm the existence of gravitational waves, predicted by Einstein 100 years previously in his General Theory of Relativity.

For Professor Karsten Danzmann, the signals' detection marks the absolute zenith of his many years of work in astrophysics. "Scientists have been searching for gravitational waves for decades, but it is only now that we have the incredibly precise technologies required to perceive these extremely weak echoes from the distant Universe," he explained. The high-precision laser measurement system developed by Professor Danzmann and his team forms the heart of the Advanced LIGO (aLIGO) observatories in the USA, providing the prerequisite for the ground-breaking discovery in physics.

Scientists at Leibniz Universität Hannover and the Max Planck Institute teamed up with British researchers to develop many of the key laser technologies that gave aLIGO a level of sensitivity never achieved before, and tested them in the GEO600 gravitational wave detector in Ruthe near Hannover. GEO600 serves as a source of new ideas and as a test bed for advanced detector technologies. In collaboration with colleagues from the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V., the team led by Karsten Danzmann and Benno Willke developed the high-power laser systems within the project. The scientists also worked together closely with researchers from British institutions.

Much of the data analysis is also conducted at Hannover. Most of the measured data from the observatories in the USA are transmitted to the Cluster Atlas in Hannover, the world's largest computer cluster for analysing data of gravitational waves. Thus it was two young data analysts from Bruce Allen's department in Hannover who first saw the crucial signal. Marco Drago and Andrew Lundgren could not believe their eyes when the online search algorithm hit and the data from the USA was transmitted to the German computers. Because it was in the middle of the night in America, they had the privilege of being the first to view the "text book signal".

The observation represents the zenith and verification of decades of research work - but is at the same time just the start of something bigger. "There's a great deal more out there in the Universe that needs to be investigated; visionaries are required," stated Professor Danzmann.

Karsten Danzmann has devoted himself to the mysteries of the Universe since his early youth. For the scientist, born in 1955, the landing on the moon in 1969 was a key experience. As a result, he pursued his studies in Clausthal and Hannover with much determination, was awarded a doctorate at the age of 25 and then went to the USA, where he conducted research and teaching as a professor at Stanford University. He had actually intended to remain in California, but was persuaded to return to Germany at the end of the eighties by the Director of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich. At that time, gravitational waves were generally thought of as a marginalised area of research. Karsten Danzmann played a major part in changing that. His talent also ensures that science topics are communicated in non-technical, popular language. "We want astronomy to be heard," is how he likes to define his objective. Generations of researchers will explore the unsolved mysteries of the Universe in the years to come. Karsten Danzmann and his fellow researchers have now achieved a major milestone that will enable this research to continue.

Notes for Editors

For further information please contact Prof Karsten Danzmann, phone +49 511 2356, email danzmannaei.mpg.de or Communications and Marketing of Leibniz Universität Hannover at +49 511 5342.