A South Whidbey grad who played a role in observing and studying ripples in the fabric of space-time found out Tuesday that her efforts have led to a Nobel Prize in Physics.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced this week that Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish — the leaders of the international collaboration of physicists and astronomers who observed gravitation waves in September 2015 — received the prestigious award meant to highlight groundbreaking work in physics.
Key, 38, was among more than 1,000 scientists who analyzed the data from the collision of a pair of massive black holes a billion light years away.
“It is a small part,” Key said of her work. “But, every small part is important and I love to do my small part.”
The collision, which happened 1.3 billion years ago in a distant galaxy, was picked up by Laser Interferometer Gravitation-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors in Hanford, Wash. and Livingston, La. Weiss, Thorne and Barish were the architects of the LIGO detectors and LIGO Scientific Collaboration.
The discovery confirmed a major prediction made by Albert Einstein in 1915 that gravitational waves can cause space-time to shake like a bowl of jelly and deepened humanity’s understanding of physical reality. It also opens up a new field of astronomy into the “unseen” universe of black holes, neutron stars and unpredictable phenomena, as well as the processes of the early universe shortly after the Big Bang.
“It’s a whole new way to observe the universe,” Key said. “It’s going to answer a lot of questions.”
Key, 1997 graduate of South Whidbey High School, earned a Ph.D in physics from Montana State University in 2010. Her dissertation was on characterizing the astrophysical sources of gravitational waves. She spent three years at the director of education and outreach at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy, during which time she took part in the first gravitational wave analysis.
The mother of two is currently an assistant professor of physics at the University of Washington Bothell. She teaches mostly undergraduate students in physics, computer science and engineering majors, while she also leads a research group that works on various LIGO projects.
Key’s parents, Steve Shapiro and Debra Valis of Langley, were overjoyed following Tuesday’s announcement.
“If you want to know if her parents are proud, then the answer is, ‘Hell yes,’ ” Shapiro said.
Shapiro said Key has been interested in space ever since she was a little kid and even wanted to be an astronaut. He added that when Key began studying gravitational wave astronomy, the hope of ever detecting the waves was considered unrealistic. Things have changed drastically over the past two years since the initial discovery, especially with the advent of multi-messenger astronomy, Key’s particular field of study.
“She has the rest of her career where she’s well situated,” Shapiro said.
Key credited Mark Racicot, her physics teacher at South Whidbey, for the role he played in encouraging her to study astrophysics. He couldn’t be reached for comment.
Key’s work with the LIGO Collaboration is ongoing as she continues to analyze data collected from three detectors spread around the world. Her work, known as parameter estimation, includes studying the data from the signals and determining the physical systems that made the signals. If it was two black holes, she finds out their masses, where they are and how big the collision was.
She’s also part of the collaboration’s education and outreach team.
“It was a really great day on Tuesday for the LIGO Collaboration and gravitational wave astronomy in general,” Key said. “I’m proud of my collaborators and my team. But, really we’re looking forward to what comes next.”
Key credited Weiss, Thorne and Barish for their perseverance over the past 50 years in proving skeptics wrong. She said they poured their efforts, money and resources into creating the detectors and the collaboration without a guarantee that a detection would ever be made.
“It was a risk,” Key said.
Einstein himself expressed doubt that the gravitational waves would ever be observed due to them being incredibly faint signals. But, cutting-edge technology in radio telescopes gave astronomers the necessary ability to peer into the universe and study the gravitational waves. Astronomers also predict that gravitational waves will provide new insight into supernovas, neutron stars and other cosmic happenings.
The unknown is what excites Key the most.
“To me, the most exciting thing is when we get a signal that we didn’t predict,” she said. “…Then, you’re really an explorer because you have to figure it out.”
Key was optimistic, like many others, that the detection would lead to serious recognition in the science community. She said physicists usually only dream about receiving the Nobel Prize though.
“Once the detection was made, I think people were thinking that it was worthy of something like a Nobel Prize,” Key said. “…I think it really brings a lot of exposure to the field.”
Key is also proud to be setting an example for women in the field of physics and science. Only around 20 percent of physics Ph.Ds in the United States go to women, and Key is hopeful that being a female professor at UW Bothell could lead to other students following a similar path as her.
It requires a strong work ethic and perseverance though.
“The thing I liked the most about physics is that it’s hard,” Key said. “You can never have the answer. It often bothers me. It’s hard and a lot of work. But it makes sense. It describes our world.”