In the woods of Livingston Parish, scientists are working to investigate gravitational waves generated millions of light-years from Earth.
At the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, a huge facility carved out of pine forests north of Livingston, researchers from all over the world are looking for world-shaking evidence in a lab unknown to many in south Louisiana.
And the scientists want to tell you all about it.
“Science is being done there by real people near (your) house, which is something people don’t often realize, that science is done by relatively crazy people working in their labs,” said Gabriela González, a professor in the LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy who is the spokeswoman for LIGO.
A documentary about the work there, called “LIGO Generations,” will be screened Wednesday and Thursday, March 25-26, in Baton Rouge, giving audiences insight into the lives of the researchers who devote themselves to science. Some staff members will speak and answer questions about their profession.
The film shows scientists teaching high school students, working in the lab and kayaking together outside of work. It reveals the researchers as ordinary people who are also working on groundbreaking science.
Four generations of researchers work there, from a co-founder of the LIGO project, Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to young graduate students.
“This is a project that has taken many decades,” González said. “It’s an instrument that has been built by many bright physicists, engineers, scientists who have worked together and trained each other for generations.”
The film was created by director Kai Staats and funded by the National Science Foundation. Staats also created a previous film about the observatory called “LIGO: A Passion for Understanding.”
“‘LIGO Generations’ is a film about people who love what they do, and the science which allows humanity to better understand the universe in which we live — through this story, we look closer at the means by which science is shared, from researcher to researcher, year after year,” Staats said in a news release.
When Albert Einstein created his Theory of General Relativity nearly a century ago, he predicted that space-time would be warped by gravitational waves.
These waves are made by different means. They could be created by black hole systems orbiting one another, a spinning star or a star that explodes and becomes a supernova.
The two American LIGO observatories — the one in Livingston and one in Washington state — attempt to detect these ripples in space-time using a laser interferometer, which from the air looks like two 2.5-mile pipelines placed in an L shape. Here, scientists split a laser, sending both beams to mirrors located in the two L-shaped arms. A gravitational wave would lengthen one arm and compress another, which the instruments would detect.
While the first generation of LIGO interferometers was built in the 1990s and early 2000s, the scientists at the Livingston facility have been working to increase the range of the instruments.
Soon, the interferometer should be 10 times stronger, observing 600 million light years away, González said.
Scientists at LIGO work hands-on with their equipment, she said, not just analyzing data. There is a continuous process of tuning their instruments to improve the sensitivity.
Researchers are confident they will successfully detect gravitational waves with the interferometer, an achievement that will create new insights into astrophysics.
“You’re going to see space-time here on Earth wiggling because of black holes out there far away,” González said. “It cannot get more exciting than that.”
Such a discovery would likely earn a Nobel prize for the designers of the interferometer, she said. And so much of the work is happening in the woods of south Louisiana.
The “LIGO Generations” documentary reveals that, González said.
If you can’t make it to one of the showings, you can see the film at space.com/28409-ligo-generations-the-film-hd-video.html.