Andrews University Professor Tiffany Summerscales Discusses Her Part in Extraordinary Scientific Discovery

Tiffany Summerscales is an associate professor in the Physics Department at Andrews University. She is a member of the LIGO collaboration which recently announced the first observation of gravitational waves. In this guest interview, physics lecturer and postgraduate student Clinton Jackson talks with Summerscales about the extraordinary discovery.

You are listed as one of the authors of the on the paper announcing the direct observation of gravitational waves.  In the world of science, how important is this paper?

This paper is the beginning of an entirely new way to explore the universe.  Gravitational waves, which are the faint ripples in the fabric of spacetime itself carry information about the astronomical events that produce them.  These events, like the collisions of black holes and supernova explosions are not only violent but also contain big mysteries.  Until now, black holes have been observed indirectly by watching their effects on the stars and gas clouds surrounding them but gravitational waves are produced by the black holes themselves and will help us figure out what happens in regions where gravity is very strong.  Supernovae caused by the collapse of massive stars also contain mysteries since we can only see them from the outside.  Gravitational waves are produced by the core of the star itself and can tell us what happens to the core and how that influences the explosion we see.

Scientists have been looking for gravitational waves since Einstein predicted them in 1916. What are gravitational waves and why are astrophysicists so interested in them?

Gravitational waves are a result of Einstein's view of gravity as a curvature of spacetime.  It is commonly explained by using the analogy of a rubber sheet.  Think of a large rubber sheet, pulled taut.  If you place a weight on the sheet it will bend the sheet and create a dimple in it.  If you then roll a marble across the sheet, it will roll towards the weight as if it is being pulled towards it.  Gravity creates a similar curvature in space so that objects with mass appear to attract each other as they follow the curvature.  Now if the mass causing the curvature changes suddenly, it will create ripples that propagate outward like the ripples on a pond.  These are gravitational waves.  If a gravitational wave passes by it changes the distances between objects.  LIGO and other gravitational wave detectors have mirrors at the ends of long, evacuated tubes in an L-shaped configuration.  Passing gravitational waves cause changes in the distance between these mirrors that we measure by reflecting laser light off the mirrors and then combining the light from each side of the L.  Changes in the light combination, also called the interference pattern, let us know that the distance between the mirrors has changed and a gravitational wave could have passed by.

Astrophysicists want to measure gravitational waves because they want to learn more about the astronomical events that produce them.  These waves are very weak.  Detectable ones will change the distance between LIGO's mirrors by less than one ten thousandth the diameter of a proton (1 part in 1020) and these are produced only by the most violent events in the universe like the merging black holes that produced the waves recently detected.

Why did you decide to study physics?

I always loved science and was fascinated by nature.  In high school my favorite subject was math so when it was time to go to college, I picked the science with the most math in it.  I was a math major too since I couldn't miss out on the opportunity to learn all of the math I could.

How did you come to be involved in the LIGO collaboration?

As an undergraduate student at Andrews, I did research with Dr. Margarita Mattingly who is a member of the Zeus Collaboration.  Zeus was a detector at a particle accelerator in Germany.  I found that I really enjoyed working in a collaboration of scientists.  My favorite class as an undergraduate was Relativity.  I found the subject mind-bendingly fun.  Working with LIGO was a chance to work on a large collaborative experiment that was built to measure gravitational waves, which were predicted by General Relativity and produced by objects like black holes.  Upon entering graduate school at Penn State, I joined a LIGO group.

Your work is in the area of signal processing.  Why is signal processing the big challenge for the detection of gravity waves?  What was your contribution to the announcement?

The gravitational waves that we are trying to detect are so weak that they have to compete to be heard over the other sources of noise in the detector.  It is like trying to tune into a very distant radio station and struggling to hear snatches of the music, just a note here and there, over the static.  Data analysis and signal processing are used to recover as much of the signal as we possibly can.  The Andrews LIGO group participates in an effort to develop and analyze a computer algorithm that combines the data from multiple detectors (there are two LIGO detectors plus the Virgo detector in Italy, plus more that are under construction) and measures the characteristics of any gravitational wave that is found.  This algorithm was one of several that were used to analyze the gravitational wave from the merging black holes that the big announcement was all about.

Are you expecting a phone call from the Swedish Academy of Science in the next couple of years?

If you look at the paper on the discovery, you will find that mine is one of about 1000 names.  All of those people played a role in designing, building and running the detectors or analyzing the data and doing science with it.  There are even more people who were former members of the collaboration who contributed too.  Nobel prizes are given to at most 3 people so, no, I will not expect my sleep to be disturbed by any calls from Sweden.  There are a few people who came up with the idea for LIGO in the first place and worked out how to make an instrument that would be sensitive enough ... they may be holding their breath a little more.

Tell us about the Andrews University Gravitational Wave Group.  What opportunities has this given students?

All of the students who are members of the group get to be part of a big collaboration doing big science.  Most of the students work on data analysis projects so they get to add to their computing skills and have experience running programs on a supercomputing cluster.  Several students have presented their work at national meetings like the American Physical Society meetings or meetings of the American Astronomical Association.  A couple of Andrews students have spent a summer in Australia working with the LIGO group at The Australian National University on laser physics.  One student spent a semester at the LIGO site in Hanford Washington and was part of an "Astrowatch" program where students ran a detector while the usual operators were performing detector upgrades.

How do you balance a busy teaching load with active research?

Collaboration with other groups in LIGO is essential.  It means that the students and I can do a part of a larger project that would take too much time to do alone.  I also teach summer intensives which gives me more time during the school year to focus on research.

Cosmology can force students to think about the universe in ways that may be uncomfortable for them.  How do approach these issues with your students?

I try to approach issues regarding the vastness and age of the universe gently.  Andrews students come from very diverse backgrounds and have large variations in what they are comfortable with and what they expect to encounter in class.  I usually start any discussions on cosmology by acknowledging the importance of the students' faith and worldview and reminding them that there is a diversity of views, probably even within the class.  We study the standard cosmological models to become educated citizens of the world but also (and especially if you do not share them) to understand the views of others so that we can engage with them charitably.

How does your work as an astrophysicist inform and nourish your faith?

It is hard to not be nourished by a universe that is so awe inspiring and beautiful.  There is always more to learn.


Clinton Jackson teaches physics at Brisbane Adventist College (Australia) and is a part-time postgraduate physics student at the University of Queensland.

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Congratulations, Prof. Summerscales. What an intriguing project. So proud of your participation and contribution.


Marvelous achievement and deserved recognition from Spectrum/Adventist Forum, who celebrate dedicated scholarship and teaching in the SDA community.


Do not know how you maintain scientific credibility, ie, big bang theory, as this relates to current SDA creationist dogma.

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It is heartening to see evidence of the exciting research available to students of Andrews University . There is a certain irony in learning of this good news on the Spectrum blog on the same day that many of us received the international edition of the Adventist Review in the mail in which the editors chose to publish a letter (commenting on a November 2015 science article) in which a quote from Ellen White is used as evidence that God didn’t create dinosaurs; that there has been an “amalgamation of man and beast” seen “in the almost endless varieties of species of animals, and in certain races of men.” The “certain races of men” were not identified.


Reading this, it amazes me how we can compartmentalize everything so neatly, and never see the connections to the separate parts of our existence.

According to my minuscule understanding of the subject at hand, this gravitational wave theory was first offered by Einstein, who is also the father of “space time” - declaring that we live in four dimensions, rather than the three we are so accustomed to, the fourth dimension being time. As a people focused on time from our beginning, we should pay particular attention to the implications of this validation of Einstein’s theory. It is the fourth dimension that takes our day-to-day existence and makes it a thing of wonder.

Some time back, Spectrum published an article debating if God knows everything - or, if we can somehow surprise God by any of our actions. In other words, does God know what our future is before we live it - AND, if He does, is that predestination? With this new validation of Einstein’s theory we can more safely say that God CAN see the “beginning from the end” - the alpha and omega" of existence - just as the Bible states. With our place in the universe occupying four dimensions, the future is there for God to see as clearly as our past. That, alone, makes the “investigative judgment” superfluous. But I doubt we’re going to let a little science get in the way of belief.


Perhaps the greatest barrier in the world of science deeply held the secret doubt from officially believers or agnostics close themselves off to fresh experience exploratory expedition of the unknown cosmos feed the great perhaps. The outer space continues to haunt earth. Anytime is now to communicate with the cosmos what it wants and hunting for. I know they don’t do boring so do I believe Professor Tiffany Summerscales larger than life hunt for its hospitality. She has just started. She too, “don’t do boring”. The cosmos may no need of fuel, food and lodging. The cornfields are large. It’s the single conversation a serious matter of shared hospitality …no matter what… better than 10 years of study.

Or just plain common sense…

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Congratulations to Tiffany Summerscales and colleagues! Hope this one holds!

My mundane first thought looking this up was, “Why did they build a LIGO in Hanford, Washington, of all unholy places?” I took care of a gentleman who died of cancer after having been a supervisor at the nuclear plant there for many years.

Next, ever curious, is there any possibility these gravity waves will turn to something like…dust…as happened not so long ago? Alan Guth is no slouch. Likewise, Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking claims victory in gravitational wave bet
18 March 2014

Stephen Hawking has claimed victory in a bet with a fellow scientist over the discovery of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in the structure of space-time from the birth of the universe.

The Cambridge cosmologist bet Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute in Canada, that gravitational waves from the first fleeting moments after the big bang would be detected.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hawking said the discovery of gravitational waves, announced on Monday by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, disproves Turok’s theory that the universe cycles endlessly from one big bang to another.

Nature: Telescope captures view of gravitational waves
17 March 2014

Astronomers have peered back to nearly the dawn of time and found what seems to be the long-sought ‘smoking gun’ for the theory that the Universe underwent a spurt of wrenching, exponential growth called inflation during the first tiny fraction of a second of its existence.

“This is a totally new, independent piece of cosmological evidence that the inflationary picture fits together,” says theoretical physicist Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, who proposed the idea of inflation in 1980. He adds that the study is “definitely” worthy of a Nobel prize.

Scientific American: Gravity Waves from Big Bang Detected
A curved signature in the cosmic microwave background light provides proof of inflation and spacetime ripples

17March 2014

The BICEP2 detectors found a surprisingly strong signal of B-mode polarization, giving them enough data to surpass the “5-sigma” statistical significance threshold for a true discovery. In fact, the researchers were so startled to see such a blaring signal in the data that they held off on publishing it for more than a year, looking for all possible alternative explanations for the pattern they found.


Galactic dust sounds death knell for BICEP2 gravitational wave claim
February 3, 2015

Planck’s data from last year convinced Sarkar and colleagues that the loop structures crossing the BICEP2 observation region may be the main cause of the polarization signal.

Sarkar told that he is surprised that the latest paper does not offer a physical explanation for why there should be so much dust at such high galactic latitudes.

“Unless we understand this it will be hard to model the foreground emission to the level of accuracy required to make progress in the continuing search for gravitational waves from inflation,” he says.

There was supposed to be a vanishingly small chance that they were wrong. But, they were wrong.

Einstein: There are no gravitational waves … ” … “Plane gravitational waves, traveling along the positive X-axis, can therefore be found … ” … “ … gravitational waves do not exist … ” … “Do gravitational waves exist?” … “It turns out that rigorous solutions exist … ”

These are the words of Albert Einstein. For 20 years he equivocated about gravitational waves, unsure whether these undulations in the fabric of space and time were predicted or ruled out by his revolutionary 1915 theory of general relativity. For all the theory’s conceptual elegance — it revealed gravity to be the effect of curves in “space-time” — its mathematics was enormously complex.

The question was settled once and for all last week, when scientists at the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Advanced LIGO) reported that they had detected gravitational waves emanating from the violent merger of two black holes more than one billion light-years away.

Is this unequivocal? Not subject to verification/repetition?


Thursday’s announcement was the unequivocal first detection ever of gravity waves.

That was a mighty chirp.

2016: The scientists analyzed these first two signals as even more swept in, and they submitted their paper to Physical Review Letters in January; it appeared online today. Their estimate of the statistical significance of the first, biggest signal is above “5-sigma,” meaning the scientists are 99.9999 percent sure it’s real.

Given that reaching 5-sigma is devilish difficult to achieve in manufacturing (I realize these are different statistical categories, but still, we’re talking about error), with much looser tolerances, I find it nearly unbelievable that 5-sigma could be the case here, given that astronomers don’t know what 96% of the universe is made of, and we’re talking about a wave propagating from a billion light years away:

What’s 96 Percent of the Universe Made Of? Astronomers Don’t Know

All the stars, planets and galaxies that can be seen today make up just 4 percent of the universe. The other 96 percent is made of stuff astronomers can’t see, detect or even comprehend.

Dark energy is possibly even more baffling than dark matter. It’s a relatively more recent discovery, and it’s one that scientists have even less of a chance of understanding anytime soon.

I’m completely ignorant, but I just wonder–common sense–how they can talk “above 5-sigma” under the circumstances, and especially since the disproved Guth-and-Hawking-endorsed gravity wave discovery was also described as above 5-sigma.

#What makes one 5-sigma better than another?

What’s 5-sigma?
The reason for such stringent standards is that several three-sigma events have later turned out to be statistical anomalies, and physicists are loath to declare discovery and later find out that the result was just a blip.

The term Six Sigma originated from terminology associated with statistical modeling of manufacturing processes. The maturity of a manufacturing process can be described by a sigma rating indicating its yield or the percentage of defect-free products it creates. A six sigma process is one in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are statistically expected to be free of defects (3.4 defective features per million opportunities). Motorola set a goal of “six sigma” for all of its manufacturing operations, and this goal became a by-word for the management and engineering practices used to achieve it.

Well, now maybe aliens can piggyback communications on gravitational waves and talk to us.

That’ll be fun. :alien:

That should have been printed out as “1 part in 10^20…,” not “1 part in 1020….”

Or, better, as “1 part in 1020…”; i.e., 1 part in 10 to the 20th power.

Or, put another way, 1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000; i.e., 1 part in 100 billion billion; i.e., 1 part in 100 quintillion.