Steve D PennAssociate Professor of Physics

Joined faculty in 2002

Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology
B.S., Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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Contact Information

Eaton HallPhone (315) 781-3759


My research is in gravitational wave astrophysics. The potential for gravitational wave astrophysics is best summarized by a recent quote from the National Academy’s Decadal Survey on Astronomy and Astrophysics 2020.

"Gravitational wave astrophysics is one of the most exciting frontiers in science. One of the survey’s key priorities is the opening of new windows on the dynamic universe, with gravitational wave detection at the forefront. The continued growth in sensitivity of current-generation facilities, such as LIGO, through phased upgrades and planning the next-generation observatory, such as Cosmic Explorer, is essential. This will require investment in technology development now. The survey committee strongly endorses gravitational wave observations as central to many crucial science objectives." [Emphasis mine.]

Therefore, during these early years of Gravitational Wave Astrophysics, the fastest means to grow this field is by increasing the detector sensitivity, which increases the event rate and the SNR. For the LIGO detector, the most promising and practical path for maximizing its sensitiv- ity is through the reduction of 3 main noises sources: Suspension thermal noise, Laser quantum noise, and Coating thermal noise.

I was on the research team that first measured LIGO's Coating Thermal Noise. that determined the source of the noise, and that developed the mirror coating for Advanced LIGO (which detected gravitational waves).  My current research is on crystalline GaAs/AlGaAs mirror coatings that have 10x lower noise than the Advancdd LIGO coatings.


Courses Taught

  • General Relativity (400-level)
  • Advanced Physics Laboratory (300-level Lab)  ☆
  • Electricity & Magnetism (300-level)
  • Classical Mechanics (300-level, Lagrangian & Hamiltonian Mechanics)
  • Modern Physics & Laboratory (200-level Lab)  ☆
  • Waves and Optics (200-level)  ☆
  • Mathematical Methods & Laboratory (200-level)
  • Computational Methods / Scientific Computing  ☆
  • Introduction to Astrophysics (200-level)  ☆
  • Introduction to Astronomy (100-level, cosmology focus)
  • Green Energy, (200-level, Physics & Environmental Studies)  ☆
  • Energy (100-level, Environmental Studies)
  • Principles of Physics, (100-level, physics for nonmajors)
  • PhysX (100-level Seminar)  ☆
  • How Things Work (100-level Seminar)  ☆

☆ = New HWS Course developed by me


Observation of gravitational waves from a binary black hole merger.  Abbott, B. P., et al. (LIGO and Virgo Collaborations including S Penn),   Phys. Rev. Lett. 116.6 (2016): 061102.    (Front cover article)

Mechanical Ringdown Studies of Large-Area Substrate-Transferred GaAs/AlGaAs Crystalline Coatings,  S D Penn, M M Kinley-Hanlon, Ian A. O. MacMillan, et al. ,  Journal Opt. Soc. Am. B, 36, (2019) C15

Frequency and surface dependence of the mechanical loss in fused silica,  Steven D Penn, et al.,  Phys. Lett. A  352 No 1-2 (2006) 3-6

Gravitational Wave Detection and Coating Thermal Noise,  S. Penn and D Ottaway, in Optical Coatings for Precision Measurements, Ed. by G. Harry, T. Bodiya, R. deSalvo, 2010, Cambridge University Press

Mechanical Loss in Silica/Tantala Dielectric Mirror Coatings,  S D Penn, Sheila Rowan, et al.,  Class. Quantum Grav. 20 (2003) 2917-2928 

Mirror Coating Solution for the Cryogenic Einstein Telescope,  Kieran Craig, Jessica Steinlechner, Peter G. Murray, Angus S. Bell, Ross Birney, Karen Haughian, Jim Hough, Ian MacLaren, Steve Penn, Stuart Reid, Raymond Robie, Sheila Rowan, and Iain W. Martin,  Phys. Rev. Lett. 122, 231102      (Front cover article)

(Plus 202 additional publications listed in my CV)


LIGO Scieintific Collaboration (Council Chair)

American Physical Society

Optical Society of America

Cosmic Explorer


LIGO Scientific Collaboration Council Chair, 2019–present

LIGO Scientific Collaboration Bylaws Committee, 2012 (Chair), 2018 

LIGO Scientific Collaboration Publication & Presentation Committee, 2008-13

APS Topical Group on Gravitation, Executive Board, Jan 2005–2008

NSF Grant Review Panel, Nov 2009

NSF Grant Review Panel for Experimental Gravity, Jan 2006

HWS Faculty Information Technology Committee, 2003–2005

HWS Committee on Standards (Chair), 2015–2019