Physics department support Einstein@Home in search for pulsars

Two members of the UWG Physics Department are using Einstein@Home, a volunteer project that uses idle computer time to process data, to detect pulsations in gravitational waves from spinning neutron stars. Benjamin Team, Instructor, and Dr. Benjamin DeMayo, Professor of Physics, are employing their unused computer hard drive space and resources to search for these patterns.

Einstein@Home was released Feb. 19, 2005, as a part of the World Year of Physics 2005 event to perform all-sky searches for continuous gravitational wave sources. The project runs through the software platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), which can be used for various volunteer computing projects.

“It is comprised of a whole bunch of small projects that allow citizens across the world to donate their unused computer cycles to help advance science,” said Team. “Anyone can look up projects under the BOINC umbrella, download the data and participate in that particular project.”

While BOINC features a variety of projects, Einstein@Home specifically focuses on rapidly rotating neutron stars, also known as pulsars, which emit gravitational waves. The project uses a computer’s idle time to process data searching for these signs from the pulsars. The data can come from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), the Arecibo telescope and the Fermi gamma-ray satellite. It is then split up and distributed among the users.

Whenever the computer is not in use, it acts as a screen saver and spends time applying search algorithms to the data received. The results are then sent back to the Einstein@Home server and the computer receives more data to analyze.

“When my computer is not being used by me, it runs the data in the background,” said DeMayo. “The project is called Search for Radio Pulsars. They send you a packet of data from the Arecibo telescope. We are trying to detect pulsars, and the pulsars themselves form a pattern looking out at the center of our Milky Way. It is a big deal discovering the gravitational waves.”

On Feb. 11, 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced their discovery of gravitational waves using two LIGO detectors. The announcement has caused a stir in the science community, since it also proved Einstein’s theory of relativity. While Einstein@Home did not participate in the discovery of the gravitational waves, the two projects are looking for gravitational waves, even though they are looking for different types.

“Einstein@Home is looking for gravitational waves that are caused by slightly different events,” said Team. “A catastrophic event like two black holes merging is going to produce a really short duration gravitational wave, such as the one announced in February. The type of events that Einstein@Home is looking for is a more continuous type. We are looking for much longer duration pulses, and it is the type of pulse that would occur with spinning neutron stars. We are basically working on different aspects of the same problem.”

By detecting gravitational waves, scientists can use the data to search the universe for answers about its beginning, its expansion and why humans are here.

“The more pulsars we find, the more we can study pulsars and we can learn more about how gravity actually impacts space,” said Team. “This is one piece of a big puzzle, and it all goes back to the fundamental questions: why are we here? What causes us to be here? What is going to happen to us?”




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