Penn Elected Chair of LIGO Scientific Collaboration

In 2015, 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves as part of his general theory of relativity, scientists made the first detection of ripples in the fabric of spacetime, confirming Einstein’s theory. Professor of Physics Steven Penn made significant contributions to the optical and suspension systems of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors that observed those waves. Now, Penn has been elected Chair of the entire LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), a group of more than 1,300 researchers focused on the direct detection of gravitational waves as a means to explore the fundamental physics of gravity and to advance astronomical discovery.

A longtime LSC member and principal investigator, Penn has been a significant contributor to the mirror substrate and coating design for LIGO detectors. He discovered how to significantly reduce the thermal noise in the material fused silica, which led to the selection of fused silica for the Advanced LIGO mirror substrates and suspensions. He also jointly developed the mirror coating that was instrumental in enabling Advanced LIGO to detect gravitational waves.

An MIT-trained physicist, Penn joined the LSC in 1998 while a postdoctoral fellow at Syracuse University. Hobart and William Smith became one of the first small colleges to join the LSC when Penn took a position in the Physics Department in 2002. He has conducted much of his groundbreaking LIGO work from his laboratory in Eaton Hall.

Penn’s research recently gained the support of the National Science Foundation, which awarded him a grant to continue his work on low noise, precision coatings for gravitational wave detectors as well as a Major Research Instrumentation grant. The latter funds the development of an apparatus for the rapid, multimodel measurement of the cryogenic elastic loss of coating materials; the award is in collaboration with Syracuse University’s Associate Professor of Physics Stefan Ballmer.


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