Montana State University

Gravitational physicist Neil Cornish to deliver third lecture in spring Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series

February 27, 2017 -- By Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

MSU professor and astrophysicist Neil Cornish will present "Extreme Gravity," at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 7, at the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. A reception will follow. MSU photo/composite image by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – An 11th grade calculus class Neil Cornish took while he was a student at a Melbourne, Australia, boarding school would crack open a doorway into the world of physics and lead him on a career-long search for answers to the mysteries of the universe.  

Cornish’s parents sent him to the boarding school, four hours away from his home on a sheep station in the Australian bush, when they realized he had an early aptitude for math, computers and science. There, he discovered that calculus appealed to his sense of logic. Physics, too, seemed to come easily to him.

"All of a sudden, I didn't have to memorize everything," Cornish said. "Everything became interrelated and it all made sense. One key unlocked all these doors.”

That key – the understanding of fundamental physics and the desire to know and discover more – has led Cornish, a professor of physics in the Montana State University College of Letters and Science, to become an internationally known gravitational scientist whose work has contributed to some of the most important gravitational and astrophysical discoveries of the century.

Cornish, who is co-founder and director of MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute, will discuss the impact of those discoveries and what occurs when gravity is at its most extreme levels, billions of times stronger than on Earth and in the solar system, during his lecture, “Extreme Gravity,” set for Tuesday, March 7. Cornish’s lecture, the third installment in the spring semester’s Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, will begin at 7 p.m. in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. A reception will follow.

“There are places in our universe where gravity is so strong that it blurs the separation between space and time, and transforms matter into strange new forms,” Cornish said. “This the realm of extreme gravity.”

Extreme gravity leads to the eventual collapse of stars, sometimes forming diamonds the size of the moon, other times forming mountain-sized orbs of nuclear matter, Cornish said.

“The fate of the largest stars is even stranger, as gravity crashes matter out of existence to form a black hole -- a region of space from which not even light can escape,” he said. “It crushes atoms found in neutron stars, where a teaspoon of neutron star matter has the mass of something like 100 billion elephants.”

Paradoxically, Cornish said, gravity is one of the weakest fundamental forces when compared to forces such as electricity, magnetism and the force that holds an atom together. But, two things make gravity different – it’s a long-range force, while others only act in a very short distance, and it only comes in one sign, unlike other forces with “positive” and “negative” signs that cancel each other out.

“Gravity adds up,” Cornish said. “It’s like the little engine that could; it just keeps on keeping on and it builds on itself and, eventually, it turns out that gravity is the dominant force in the universe in terms of powering everything that happens in the universe. It’s where most of the energy in the universe ultimately comes from.”

Prior to coming to MSU, Cornish’s studies led him from the University of Melbourne, where he earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, to Canada to pursue his doctorate at the University of Toronto. He then moved to England, where he was a research fellow in Stephen Hawking’s general relativity group at the University of Cambridge for two years before accepting a NASA research fellowship at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he worked on a mission that imaged the afterglow of the Big Bang.

Cornish moved to Bozeman in 1999 to join the MSU faculty. Since then, his work has helped to position the university among some of the top institutions in astrophysics and gravitational wave science.

In 2004, he helped to determine that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and 78 billion light years across.

In 2006, he was appointed to the astrophysics committee of NASA’s Advisory Council.

In 2007, he successfully led the effort to have MSU accepted as the 42nd member of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatories, or LIGO, Scientific Collaboration, an international group that studies gravitational waves.

In March 2015, MSU was part of a national network that received $14.5 million to create and operate a center for the detection gravitational waves. The National Science Foundation awarded the grant to the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) to establish a Physics Frontiers Center. Cornish, a senior member of the center, and his research group received $403,000 under the award. Cornish joined the NANOGrav collaboration in 2013.

In September 2015, Cornish and five MSU graduate students were among the LIGO team that contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves. The discovery, which was announced in February 2016 and lauded worldwide, confirmed a major prediction of Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity. All 1,000 scientists who contributed to the discovery were honored with a prestigious Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamentalist Physics.

Hawking, who served on the selection committee for the prize, called the discovery “the beginning of a new astronomy.”

Yves Idzerda, head of MSU’s Department of Physics, said the contribution Cornish and his students made to the first detection of gravitational waves and direct proof of black holes has inspired students, scientists and the public.

"This is the beginning of exciting times in physics," Idzerda said.

“That was the first time we’d actually seen really extreme gravity in action – or heard black holes colliding -- and that’s just the beginning,” Cornish said. “We’re using the universe as a laboratory where it’s able to produce matter and forms that are way outside of what we could hope to create on Earth.”

The development of new, more powerful observational instruments coupled with the detection of gravitational waves gives scientists a new way to probe extreme gravity and means more discoveries are imminent, Cornish said.

“Today, we are able to explore the realm of extreme gravity for the first time using a new generation of telescopes,” he said. “One is the size of Earth, another will soon be attached to the International Space Station, and yet another listens to the vibrations of gravity itself.”

The “Earth-sized telescope,” called the Event Horizons Telescope, is actually a collection of telescopes around the world that work in millimeter radiation, Cornish said. Combining the readouts from these powerful telescopes synthesizes a telescope so powerful it is possible to see a quarter on the moon.

And, there are the LIGO detectors, which are still operating.

“We’ve yet to detect anything other than colliding black holes, but we think there should be some mergers of collapsed stars, neutron stars, and we hope to detect some of those and start to probe what they’re made of,” Cornish said. “It’s going to be an ongoing story as we get more and more detections.”

The Provost's Distinguished Lecturer Series recognizes outstanding MSU faculty for their scholarship and leadership. William Brown, professor of management in the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship, will lecture April 18.

Contact: Neil Cornish, ncornish@montana.edu or (406) 994-7986

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