Montana State University

Lewistown student works on space antenna project

December 15, 2003 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU Research Office

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Seth Timpano used to help out at the Triangle Motel & Gun Shop, a family-owned business that drew its share of double takes from tourists not used to seeing such a combination.

These days, he works with white dwarfs and black holes, and scientists around the world are paying attention to his activities.

Timpano, a Lewistown native and senior at Montana State University-Bozeman, has been working with renowned physicist Neil Cornish and graduate student Louis Rubbo for the past two years on a project that involves a space antenna called LISA. The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna will be launched in 2011 to detect gravitational waves in the universe. Gravitational waves are ripples created when massive bodies move about in the universe. They move out at the speed of light, much like fast-moving ripples on a pond.

Working through the Undergraduate Scholars Program at MSU, Timpano is simulating the responses of LISA to white dwarfs, neutron stars, black holes and other sources of gravitational waves. The purpose is to give scientists an idea of what LISA will detect and how to analyze that information.

"I feel our work is important," said Timpano, son of Ed and Jane Timpano. "It's definitely going to help the gravitational wave community. It's not just something to do."

Cornish agreed.

"This work is very important to the mission, and it's something that no one else is doing," he said. "There are people around the world who are eagerly anticipating our releasing of the simulation ... This isn't a make-work type project, but a vital part of the preparation for this billion dollar mission."

A network of antennas around the world is already detecting gravitational waves in space, but it can't pick up the low frequencies that LISA will gather, Cornish said. Scientists don't want to wait until LISA starts sending back information before they figure out what to do with that data, Cornish added.

"We want to be able to extract as much information as we can about these gravitational wave sources and learn how to develop methods for analyzing the output of the detectors," Cornish said. "If we have to wait until the launch, that wouldn't be very good. By having this sort of synthetic, virtual modeling ... we can actually get a head start."

Timpano has been involved in science since his Lewistown days when he competed in science bowls and science olympiads. He started doing research between his sophomore and junior years at MSU and has racked up scholarships since then. He received a Montana Space Grant Consortium scholarship for 2002/03 and another for 2003/04. He was one of MSU's outstanding math students in 2002 and 2003. He is majoring in physics, math and philosophy and will graduate from MSU in the spring. He then wants to attend graduate school, work in a national research center and eventually become a professor of astrophysics.

"I'm very hopeful that he's going to end up at a great institution for this type of work," Cornish said, noting that Timpano has already reached the level of an advanced graduate student. "He's certainly very well prepared."

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu