An Exclusive Interview with Dr. Bruce Allen

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We interviewed Dr. Bruce Allen, head of the Einstein@home project at LIGO who visited the campus as part of the Techfest, IIT Bombay Lecture series. In a candid interview he talks about the scope of the Indian LIGO programme, the relevance of fundamental science research and his views on the recently concluded Presidential elections in the US and its implications on research.


Q. LIGO is a revolutionary collaboration with scientists all over the world. How did you go about bringing scientists from all over the world for this collaboration?

It’s not unique, in the sense that there are other scientific experiments that require large collaborations going on. In the end, the work is done by individual people. What happens is that work is broken into many small working groups and these working groups have any number of people- sometimes five to ten. What we usually do to communicate is sometimes have conference calls and use the Internet. The internet makes it all possible and we can exchange ideas.

Of course, the people who need to use instruments have to go on site to use them. It is really thanks to internet that it is possible for thousands of people across the planet to work together.

Q. What does the discovery of gravitational waves mean for science in the broader sense?

First of all, it means that Einstein’s Theory of Gravity is correct. We can see this theory at work in many ways. So we now know that this is the correct theory of Gravity. And it tells us something about how the Universe is going to evolve. That is one thing.

The other thing is that it gives us a different pair of eyes to see things. We have eyes that see light and instruments like telescopes that can see Gamma rays. But Gravitational waves let us see things differently. So we can understand things that we cannot see with our eyes. And our discovery regarding Black Holes is an example of that. Because Black Holes are, well, black, they cannot emit light or any electromagnetic waves that we can see with any instrument. This discovery was impossible without Gravitational Waves.

Q. What role have engineers played in the construction of LIGO? Was new discovery technology created in the process? Would we see it in daily use some day?

LIGO involves things that are at the cutting edge of technology. For example, the mirrors used are these things that weigh several kilos but they have a surface which is precise to nanometers. So just to produce these mirrors to such precision involved the creation of new technology- and there are other examples of that. The LIGO instruments are unique things- you can’t find these anywhere else in the world- and each instrument contains unique pieces of technology, and they push the limits forward.

When you do something the first time it becomes easier and easier to do it again, and the technology created now, I don’t know what use it will find, but I do know every piece of technology gets used by someone in some way.

We always use the knowledge we have and we find ways to use knowledge at our disposal. You know IIT is one place where such transfer of knowledge to useful things takes place.

Q. Increasingly we see innovators in the industry criticizing the scientific community for being overly caught up in producing a volume of scientific papers without focusing on solving real world problems. Elon Musk for example said that he believes all research papers are useless. What are your thoughts on the issue?

He’s right. I had an experience when I was a graduate student. I needed to look up an old mathematical paper from the 18th century and I went to the Cambridge Library to find it. The librarian went into the basement and came back and gave me this thick book from 1776. I started flipping through the journal and I discovered that the article I was looking up was the only useful thing! All the other articles in this journal were useless!

There was this farmer from Lancaster who had mixed some black substance in his barn with something else and came up with a green gas. That was the typical scientific article from this journal. And in fact there was nothing useful there.

And it’s true that most scientific work we do, won’t lead to anything. But occasionally it does. The article we published on our discovery is a paper people will be reading a hundred or two hundred years from now. The thing is we don’t know now what scientific work will turn out to be good.

Now the first discovery of gravitational waves is clearly something that is going to have important consequences for the future; but I don’t say that Musk is wrong- he’s probably right- most published work is probably going to turn out to be not very useful, but the trouble is that we don’t know which it is, right now!

Q. Taking into consideration recent events, the world seems more divided than ever before, culturally and politically speaking. How do you think it could impact the research community and scientific collaboration?

It certainly does- I am very ashamed of what happened in my country, the US. I was so proud when Barack Obama became President- I was proud to be an American citizen but I am not so proud anymore.

However, I think it’s research and scientific work that brings people together and my colleagues here- they grew up in very different circumstances- a different language, culture than I did, but we have something very common- scientifically- that brings us together.

I think if we look at how the world has developed in the past 100 years- for example the verification of Einstein’s theory- Einstein was a German and Swiss national, but the first verification of his theory came from Arthur Eddington who was a British national, and this was at the time of the First World War, when the German and British were trying to exterminate each other.

So Science has also provided a common ground, like Sport, where countries from can cooperate and compete with each other. And it actually brings people together. I think Science is actually a part of the solution of the problem that you are describing.

Q. What has prompted the decision to bring LIGO to India- IndiGO as we know it? What groundwork are you laying for garnering interest from Indian scientists and researchers alike?

The groundwork has been laid over a number of years. As I said, India has a strong tradition in this area, but this tradition is in theoretical science, not in the experimental, practical side of building an instrument and making it work.

What has happened is that the Indian Government and the Scientific ministries have become convinced that there is great value in filling out this side too and one of the reasons I have come here is to generate interest in students of the IITs in working in this area because this is going to be a very interesting area of research in the future. It’s going to offer a lot of opportunities to work at the cutting edge of technology.

Q. What do you like to do in your pastime?

I like making things with my hands. I have a woodworking workshop at home- lathes, mills, surface finishers and the like. That is my favorite relaxation.

Q. What are three scientific books you will recommend everyone to read?

I enjoyed reading ‘Surely You’re Joking’ by Feynman, one of my favorite physicist. I also recommend people read ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Hawking- a very nice book.
And if they want to read more about gravity and gravity waves, they should read one of the books by Kip Thorne- ‘Black Holes and Time Warps’

Q. What words of encouragement would you like to give to students to help them face the hardships on the road to becoming a physicist?

I think the hardships are maybe exaggerated. The most important thing is to find something to do that you enjoy. All IITians are brilliant enough to succeed at anything they do. So I think what is important is that they should find some motivation to do something they enjoy.

The secret to a happy life, in my opinion is to do something that you enjoy.