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Discover Science: William F. Tate IV

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According to Tobler’s first law of geography, “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” On this episode of the Discover Science podcast, Dr. William F. Tate IV sits down with former College of Science Director of Advising, Recruitment and Retention Blane Harding as well as 2020 physics graduate Ohidul Mojumder to illustrates the complex relationship between place, race and STEM attainment and the uneven contours of the education pipeline.

Since recording this podcast, Tate has accepted a position as executive vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of South Carolina beginning in July 2020. Most recently, Tate served as the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences and Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Washington University in St. Louis. For over a decade, Tate’s research has focused on the development of epidemiological and geospatial models to explain the social determinants of educational attainment as well as health and developmental outcomes. 

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  • Discover Science: William F. Tate IV transcript

    Blane Harding: As professors, researchers and educators, we believe having a quality education is a human right that should be available to all. However, barriers pursuing education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math with the STEM programs in education exist in our country that are based not on an interest or a lack of drive, but on characteristics like a person's zip code.

    I'm Blane Harding, the Director of Advising, Recruitment and Retention for the College of Science at the University of Nevada, Reno.

    Ohidul Mojumder: I'm Ohidul Mojumder, a physics student in the College of Science. Welcome to our Discover Science podcast, an offshoot of our public lecture series of the same name, where we speak with the world's leading scientists, researchers and educators about important subjects that influence our world.

    In this episode, we are joined by Dr. William F. Tate IV, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Tate serves as a Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

    For over a decade, Dr. Tate's research has explored the complex relationship between where and how a person grows up and their ability to pursue a STEM education. He has published two books on the subject, and has received numerous amounts of accolades for his research, including the Early Career Award and the Presidential Citation from the American Educational Research Association. He was also elected to the National Assembly of Education in 2017 and served as a member of For The Sake of All research team, a multidisciplinary group that is studying the health, development, and well-being of African-Americans in the St. Louis region.

    His Discover Science lecturer asks the question, is space plus race greater than STEM attainment? Here we are with him today to talk through the answer. Welcome to the show, Dr. Tate.

    Dr. William F. Tate IV: Thank you for the introduction and the invitation to participate.

    Mojumder: It's an honor to have you here today. The first question that I have for you is the idea of comparing someone's geospatial location and academic achievement, it sounds somewhat abstract when you first hear it. Can you give us a big picture of your research, and give us a little bit of insight?

    Dr. Tate: Let's take a state university anywhere in the United States. We have 50 flagship state universities. Most of them have an Honors program. If you were to back map those individuals who are residents of the state in the Honors program, you will find a pattern in a zip code. You could predict which students were in the Honors program based upon the zip code. The zip code would be predictive. We could predict who might be entering the very best private schools in the United States based upon where they live, what high school they attended. High schools are geospatial locations. They're embedded in communities. Those communities have certain attributes. The students who matriculate in those communities have certain attributes. Usually what I say is they have certain investments in them that have positioned them to be, for example, in an Honors program. Well, you could take that same type of thinking and say who might perform very well in a science course or physics or chemistry or statistics. Largely, we can predict because there's social determinants around them that actually cluster in space.

    Let's just take a straight forward one. We know that the biggest predictor of whether someone does well in science or math is their teacher. Teacher effects are quite powerful. We also know that teacher effects cluster: that highly qualified teachers who have a great STEM background tend to be in the same places. Those students who matriculate in a geospace with very good STEM teachers, who are highly qualified, are more likely to perform well on the ACT or the SAT, to enter your Honors program or to be part of an engineering major. All these things are clustering. The big question is, why do some schools have outstanding STEM teachers in the high school levels and others don't? Why is it that some students have a great k-8 education in STEM areas? In fact, why is it that some kids actually get science in elementary school and some don't?

    The reality is that it's geospatially determined. There are some schools that where clustering happens that they actually take science, or they actually have a very good math teacher. Many young people are clustered in school districts that don't even have certified teachers in math and science. They're being held accountable by State standards and other things that they really don't have a true shot at, and unfortunately it does end up being geospatially located.

    Mojumder: From your initial remarks, it seems like this geospatial location has some relation to a socioeconomic status or a socioeconomic background. Can you further go on about this?

    Dr. Tate: Right. You're absolutely correct. We have historically organized ourselves with boundaries that delineate our socio-economic background. They're very well articulated in our communities and housing policy that started way back in the 1930s and '40s in the United States, organized our neighborhoods in certain types of ways. We subsidize the suburbanization of many communities, and then used redlining and other strategies to keep people out of these communities based upon their race or class. The artifact of that is that it's an archaeological dig of discrimination. You end up looking around the totality of the United States and you have a very affluent highly, just, rich suburbs on every metric, not just financially, but they have everything at scale. You have some urban communities that now have been gentrified, they have the same attributes. Then you have in urban communities those that have been underdeveloped over time, they lack the kind of health care and education that you normally would need in order to protect the brain, because how do you do STEM? It's in your mind, it's your brain. If you don't have food, dentists, insurance, all the things that are necessary so that your brain can fully mature and be successful at doing things that are cognitively demanding like STEM, then you're at a definite loss as compared to colleagues who might be in a suburban area where they have all of that at scale.

    This is the reality of the American divide. It used to be an urban/suburban/rural divide, but with the big changes in our urban communities, you're experiencing really right here in Reno. As I came into town they said Google was here and other places. I guarantee you that over time, your achievement in STEM is going to go up 100% because there will be new geospatial communities created that will benefit those folks who are working in those environments. The parents there will insist upon it, and those students will grow. Then there'll be another set of people indigenous who might not actually have access to the same resources, and you will see the disparities unfold, and it will be geospatially oriented.

    There are ways to intervene on that, and we can chat about it, but most certainly it’s something that I would be concerned about if I were living in this community.

    Mojumder: Actually, I was born and raised in Reno. Throughout the years, I've seen changes occurring, expansion of the city itself, but one thing that's very characteristic to Reno is that there's a mix of urban, suburban, and rural populations in one city. How would this differ with any of the other research that you've looked at previously?

    Dr. Tate: If I were mimicking what I did in St. Louis, we want to be a biotech hub. We put a map out and we laid out where all the biotech companies were. In our community, they line up on the highway of 64-- 4064 is our main thoroughfare. The biotech companies, in a non-random fashion, organized around the highway. That's not surprising because people need to get their workers in and out. Medical facilities tend to cluster around highways too. We know that these are the communities where there's going to be work that's high-tech.

    The big question then is, what does achievement look like in those communities where the workers are actually going to have access? Parents are going to be there, and they're going to want good schools around there, and they're going to want to have housing next to where they work. They don't want a long commute. You're going to see patterns emerge here. Wherever the companies go, and it's probably going to be on your highways, they will begin to have clusters of excellence. You'll see certain type of food establishments, you'll see certain types of schools, whether they be public, private or charter, will emerge, and there will be an investment in having a very high-quality STEM environment in those places. It's a zero-sum game because it's a finite number of people who are actually of quality who can teach these classes so we don't produce them fast enough. These disparities become inherent unless you can, at the same time, rapidly increase the number of people who are really great STEM teachers and have them be aligned in places where those companies don't line up.

    Fragmentation of our neighborhoods and the like is a form of segregation. That leads to disparity of all sort. A big question is, can you be an elastic community that's more inclusive and it actually takes seriously having talent dispersed around the geospatial realm of this environment, giving everybody an opportunity to contribute?

    The communities that do that well are the ones that have produced a genius that you never would have found because they didn't have the opportunity structure.

    Harding: I think that's very interesting, Dr. Tate. When we talk about, and you take a look at a variety of different universities and institutions and they're all concerned about culture. Whether it's the chief diversity officer, it's an inclusion officer, they're talking about how culture is getting in the way of the success of Black and Brown kids and so forth and so on. My question is involving this debate over the impact of culture to me is not necessarily culture, it's their lived experiences. They can go hand in hand, but I think they're separate. You seem to focus on those lived experiences. What role do you think culture plays in the lack of attainment in the STEM degrees?

    Dr. Tate: The lived experience that I was talking about in terms of these big structures, these are deeply influential and a life course, but also, in a similar fashion, it would be naive not to acknowledge that culture influences choice. A big question is, which one is more impactful? I like to tell people they're both impactful. That the structural issues are impactful, but the culture and choices that we make, depending on what our culture values, is also impactful.

    Rarely have I met a parent who didn't aspire for their child to have a true opportunity. I think there is the issue of being educated, even parental education, making sure that our parents understand that there are opportunities in STEM. I wouldn't just limit it to the STEM, I would say in the art and in creative work is more broadly, there are a lot of opportunities in the extent to which parents understand how to navigate the systems we have in place is important.

    One other thing, we're supposed to be the experts, those of us at the university, in terms of creating educational infrastructure. We need to be the loudest about when it's underdeveloped prior to the collegiate experience. I want to have the very best students in my classes. By that, I mean the ones who really want to be there, and have had some opportunities to develop their minds. If I can see that their pre-K through 12 experience is underdeveloped, we should be shouting from the rooftops to fix it.

    Harding: Yes, I agree with that completely, but we tend to focus on them once they get here.

    Dr. Tate: Then we spend billions of dollars on remediation, which, generally, you're remediating on 12 years of experience, and it's extremely challenging to pull off.

    Harding: Very true.

    Mojumder: Actual changes in the school district itself are very difficult to attain. Is there any way that students themselves can try and go for these changes or push themselves forward to be more successful in the future?

    Dr. Tate: It assumes that the student would actually know what they don't know. The dilemma is that we know what the pathways are for a successful matriculation at a place like the University of Nevada, Reno. As you know now, you're in physics, you understand the background. You could be an advocate, of course, but it would be hard for a ninth grader to fully understand that I don't really have access to AP Chemistry, and that's going to be impactful for my life, or I don't have access to a teacher who actually understands calculus, and so I'm not going to be able to learn it in such a way that I can apply it and use it when I get to Reno or whatever school they want to matriculate in.

    It's important for us as citizens, and I count anyone over the age of 18, in adult life who's voting, should be really invested in making sure that all the young people have these structural things that we know are there so that if they do make the right choice, as you've articulated, that the choice mirrors the opportunity. That's what we really have to work on, the choice that they make mirroring what the new opportunity structure is. In too many places, it's underdeveloped in our rural communities, as well in some of the underdeveloped parts of our urban communities, is geospatially located.

    The beautiful part about that is, based upon your question, is we could put a map up and say where we need to go get help. We can see it. That's why I use maps. I could use regression analysis or hierarchical linear models or all kinds of sophisticated statistical techniques, but I put everything on a map so you can see where you live relative to where other people live and what's happening in terms of the differential opportunity color coded with statistics undergirding it, and then you too could intervene and be a citizen scholar trying to make a difference for the life of a young person.

    Harding: You talked a little earlier about the zip codes and identification of zip codes being predictors. Do you know of any strategies that low-income communities have used to actually bring in quality teachers? Because if they're quality teachers, they have options. They're going to go the better school district as opposed to go to the poorest school district.

    Dr. Tate: You just nailed it. Therein lies the dilemma. Once the cycle of the community is started, that cycle is extremely difficult to intervene on. Part of that cycle is what are the benefit structures for a teacher in a community? If the suburban community where I live is redshirting teachers, giving them a full salary to trail after another teacher versus the other community that doesn't have that, I would rather be in this place that's going to support me as a professional. If one of the districts has a better retirement program, that's the case where our urban district in St. Louis has its own individual retirement program. Everybody worries that it might not be sustainable, versus the state takes over this retirement program for every other district in Missouri. If I have a choice in terms of long term where I'm going to invest my time, I'm going to go to the place that's going to ensure that my retirement is stable. These are the differential things that begin to happen in a cluster again in geospace. All these policies and benefit structures begin to accrue in the functioning communities that are doing very well. Some people will say money doesn't matter. The only people who say that are people with money. Everyone else knows that having a financial infrastructure, the incentives and the like makes a huge difference.

    I haven't even dealt with one other piece about the geospatial infrastructure. We've been just talking about the public facing part of it. What also happens in geospace when there's a very affluent or middle-class family, they invest their family resources into the children over and above what can happen in a distressed financial community. Those students then accrue better public resources along with better family resources, doubling and tripling the investment in their education and health development. It makes it very, very hard for the student who doesn't have the family resources and the public resources, all again geospatially located, to compete.

    STEM is extremely competitive. Anyone who's ever thought about being a scientist or an engineer or a technologist knows that those courses are cognitively demanding, correct?

    Mojumder: Yes, of course.

    Dr. Tate: The students, they are competitive. They want to do well. Imagine if you have deficiency of some sort, not because of your own making, because you just haven't had the resources at the time in order to compete. That’s talent loss. As a society, there's a cost to that.

    We're talking about it at a very high level where that student actually makes it to college but maybe they end up switching majors, let's say, because they can't do the STEM major because they don't have all those accrue resources. They end up graduating. They can still go add value, and their children have a shot at the STEM degree, because they're going to end up moving to a community with the value added that we just talked about. It takes a generation to get to that.

    What happens to the student who doesn't even get to college? They're geographically-bounded. They don't make it. They didn't have all the family and public resources before. Let's say they graduate from high school. Maybe they can compete to get a job that pays a reasonable wage. Not likely, because our economy has changed so radically. The manufacturing world that those people used to go to doesn't exist anymore. They're stuck in low-paying jobs. They're not going to be able to cross over into the geospace that we talked about. Worse yet, imagine if they don't graduate from high school and don't have the credential and/or the networking experiences associated with that. What's going to happen to them? They end up in a cycle of generally engaging with our criminal justice system. They end up with very, very poor health outcomes that we, as a society, end up subsidizing because they don't have insurance, so it's going to cost the rest of us. Once they enter into that realm, it just spins. Where do they end up living? They all live in the same places. They cluster geospatially. We keep them bounded by our rules and policies in certain areas.

    They may have children and they end up in school. What's going to happen to them? It becomes a cycle. That cycle is extremely difficult to intervene on. That's why I say when you have a community that's emerging like yours with the new economy, that the extent to which you can design something that might provide opportunities for people indigenous, including the STEM opportunity and good healthcare, because they need that to develop the brain, is foundational to breaking that cycle.

    Harding: Many distressed communities, not all, but many distressed communities are communities of color. I know we have a program here on campus where we're trying to increase Latinos, male and female, going into education and going into K through 12 education. If we were to increase, and there's not a lot to begin with if you take a look at the numbers and percentages, if we're to increase the number of teachers of color that are in K through 12, do you think that would have an impact on this distressed communities? Because they would have a tendency, at least from my experience, to go back to those communities, to give back to those communities because they want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

    Dr. Tate: There have been a couple of studies that delineate that it is an empirical fact that having a mentor/teacher of your ethnic background, racial background, is an impactful part of your social development and your achievement. The extent to which we can do that is extremely important and it could be impactful. A lot of people are concerned that teachers who are not of the same background wouldn't be impactful. That's not what the research says. It just says having someone who you can identify with is actually an impactful experience. I think the extent to which schools are able to pull that off, we should do it.

    Mojumder: It seems like we keep circling around the topic of incentivizing ways to develop these communities, to invest in these communities. What are some ways? Would it be political reform on the local level, on the national level? What are some ways that we can combat this and break the cycle?

    Dr. Tate: Every community has a different history and a different design. The extent to which fragmented communities can figure out to create a more unified home, the more likely they are to be able to generate revenue that can be shared. They won't compete against themselves, and they're going to have a greater good around schooling in all municipal services. Imagine an inelastic environment where it's fragmented. One of those communities is going to get all the business. The high-end affluent suburb. That one will flourish while all the others are floundering.

    That one will have the good schools. That's where the Honors program will be. That's where all the corporate types will live. That's where the golf courses will be. That's where Whole Foods will be. That's where Starbucks will be. That's where everything that everybody wants will be in that place. That's where the opportunity will flow from, and the rest of the community will flounder. This will be the demise of America if we don't fix it, and if we don't deal with the rural community and actually help them as well. It's both urban and rural. Some people just think it's urban. It's both. So many folks are just woefully underdeveloped because of this thinking.

    Harding: Yes. The harm is the product of those that are in control that actually have the ability and the capacity to dictate them.

    Dr. Tate: Well, I'll leave it right there. We need the will, politically.

    Harding: Yes, true.

    Mojumder: Honestly, it was a pleasure speaking to you today, Dr. Tate. He has a kind of eloquence to the way he speaks that makes it quite a pleasure, and it was nice speaking to him.

    Thank you to our listeners for listening. I hope to see you guys at the next Discover Science lecture, and then the next Discover Science podcast.

Discover Science: Gabriela González

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More than 100 years after Albert Einstein predicted gravitational waves—ripples in space-time caused by violent cosmic collisions—LIGO team scientists confirmed their existence using large, extremely precise detectors. Listen as LIGO team physicist Dr. Gabriela González speaks with Physics professors Drs. Richard Plotkin and Thomas White about the discovery of gravitational waves, lasers in space and the value of science communication.

Dr. González was born in Córdoba, Argentina, studied physics at the University of Córdoba, and received her Ph.D. from Syracuse University. She is currently a professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University. She has received awards from the American Physical Society, the American Astronomical Society and the National Academy of Sciences.

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  • Discover Science: Gabriela González transcript


    Dr. Thomas White: At 5:51 on the morning of September 14th, 2015, a team of scientists witnessed something many thought was impossible: the direct detection of gravitational waves. These ripples in space-time caused by violent cosmic collisions, in this case, the collision of two black holes had been predicted by Einstein over 100 years earlier, and even he thought there would never be proof of their existence. Welcome to the Discover Science Podcast Series, where we sit down with some of the country's leading scientists and researchers for a conversation about the incredible discoveries that shape our world. I'm Thomas White, a professor of physics here at UNR.

    Dr. Richard Plotkin: And I am Richard Plotkin, a professor of astronomy here at UNR.

    White: Today we sit down with one of the scientists who first detected that great cosmic collision, Dr. González Gonzalez of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO for short.

    Plotkin: Gabby is a professor of physics at Louisiana State University. She was elected as the spokesperson for the LIGO collaboration from 2011 through 2017. She's the winner of numerous awards, including the 2019 SEC Professor of the Year, the Bruno Rossi Prize from the high energy astrophysics division of the American Astronomical Society, which was awarded to both her and the LIGO collaboration, and she is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences and she's a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Gabby, thank you very much for joining us. We're really thrilled to have you here to kick off our podcast series.

    Dr. Gabriela González: Thank you, it's an honor to be here.

    Plotkin: You're, of course, a world-renowned expert on gravity and gravitational wave astronomy. For the listeners at home, can you just explain in simple terms, what's a gravitational wave?

    González: Like you said, this is something that Einstein predicted right after publishing his theory of general relativity, which is a theory of gravity. It has a fancy name, but it's just a theory of gravity. It says that bodies attract each other because they deform the space-time, they curve the space where they leave weaker the space. I will say because we have mass.

    Plotkin: Hopefully not too much.

    González: Not too much. Not as much as the sun does and that's why the earth goes around the sun. It's not because there's a force of gravity like we learn in school from Newton's theory, it's because it follows the shortest path which is the curved one. Following that theory, that means that when the bodies move like the earth around the sun, then the space-time also changes, and if the bodies are moving in an oscillatory fashion like the earth around the sun, then the space-time has curvature like waves, and those are gravitational waves.

    Plotkin: So is that like a boat disturbing water as it goes through?

    González: That's right, except that it's in all three dimensions and time, so clocks are oscillating too.

    White: These gravitational waves, they were predicted, like you said, over a century ago, and the LIGO project itself is now a decades-old project.

    We were just wondering, what is it that kept you motivated this so long in this search because you must have had years where you were finding nothing, and not even ensure if you would find something, so what was your motivation through that period?

    González: I have decades in this, not many decades. Almost three, but there are people, the pioneers in this field, they began thinking about this way of measuring gravitational waves in the '70s, so this is a question you should ask them, especially Ray Wise in MIT. He was the one who thought that if you use lasers measuring distances between mirrors, and if you put those mirrors kilometers apart, and if you build a vacuum system for the laser to travel, then you might be able to measure gravitational waves.

    White: That's what you do, right? That's basically how LIGO works?

    González: That's basically how LIGO works. Actually, what we do is we make the laser go through a beam splitter, so it splits in two, and then it travels four kilometers, that's two and a half miles on each side, and then bounces on mirrors all in a vacuum system, and then those lasers come back. When they come back, if the distances are different, which is what a gravitational wave would do, then the beams are not in face anymore. That's why we call this an interferometer because we measure the face or the interference of these beams.

    White: When Dr. Weiss came up with this in the '70s, did he imagined that this could be done? The technology at the time surely was not advanced enough for this.

    González: It was not and actually, even in those times when we read those original proposals to the National Science Foundation, they said this is probably going to take two faces. We need to be build two big facilities because if you see a signal in one, you need to confirm it with seeing the same signal in another facility. So two observatories were built, one in Hanford, Washington, and the other in Livingston, Louisiana very close to where I live. I'm from Argentina, so my accent is much more Southern than Louisiana. Yes, we have these two observatories.

    I think he imagined that this could be big, he knew it was going to take time, but the quest for doing these and building such a sensitive instrument was so exciting. It wasn't just discovering gravitational waves. This started when you asked what kept me going. I think what kept me, and he, and all the people going on these, they are very proud, they are very excited in contributing to the sensitivity of these instruments. You said that we discovered them, but I haven't told you yet how small these gravitational waves are.

    Plotkin: Please tell us.

    González: The first one that we discovered is still the largest one, it's still has a record of largest amplitude. What we measure was these two and a half miles getting longer and shorter, longer and shorter a few times by a distance that was smaller than an atom, smaller than a proton, it was four parts in a thousand of the proton.

    White: Oh my, that is incredibly small.

    Plotkin: I can't even imagine that, it's insane.

    González: It's like comparing an atom to the distance between the earth and the sun.

    Plotkin: I remember many years ago, I got to tour the Livingston LIGO Detector in Louisiana. Things I remember was they're telling me they could essentially hear trees falling down from miles and miles away because this thing was so sensitive to logging in the area.

    González: That's right. Of course, sometimes those trees fall closer than that because the detector is in the middle of a logging forest, so if they log very close, then sometimes we have to stop, but that doesn't happen very often.

    White: In retrospect, would you have positioned the detector somewhere else?

    González: We know now a lot better about what to avoid, and we probably would have looked for some more solid ground, rocky ground, not so close to the coast. One of the noises that we hear apart from trees falling, that is actually once in a while, so it's not so bad, but the noise that bothers us the most is produced by the surf waves on the coast and they are resonant waves.

    White: Wow, how far are you from the coast?

    González: We are quite a few miles from the coast. We are like 60 miles depending on how you measured of course. Louisiana is a swamp, so it doesn't really have a coast, a well-defined coast, but this is something that you can measure in a seismometer anywhere in the world, but if you're closer to the coast, then that kind of noise is larger.

    White: I think the next detector should be built in Nevada then. Large, flat, nowhere near the ocean.

    Plotkin: That's quite a problem.

    González: We are thinking about what we call third-generation detectors, which are longer, better, not cheaper. They are actually more expensive, but we would like to make facilities that are 10 times longer, 40 kilometers instead of four kilometers long. The longer you make the detector, the more you have to compensate for the curvature of the earth.

    White: That's amazing.

    González: Because the laser travels in a straight line, but the earth is not flat, we know it's not flat.

    Plotkin: So even over only 40 kilometers, you have to worry about that.

    González: Then you have to worry about that, you have to build some ground so that the laser is going to be straight.

    Plotkin: Let's talk about the exciting moment, the first discovery of when you saw the first retrocession gravitational wave. This is in September of 2015 at 5:51 AM, very early Eastern Daylight Time. A signal is detected in both twin detectors. Often we have this image like we'll see in movies of a scientific discovery of this eureka moment.

    The one I always think of like in the movie Contact when Jodie Foster is in the New Mexico desert listening to radio signals from outer space, and she finds aliens and she jumps into her car, back to control center screaming out coordinates, "Point it here, point it here."

    I imagined those dramatic things are amazing if that's how it works, but it was mentioned it's mixed with something mundane at the time. What were you doing?

    González: I was sleeping. Actually, it is an interesting story because we were preparing to take data, we hadn't begun taking data regularly like we do now in what we call observing runs, where we try to take data 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We were preparing for doing that and we were doing tests in interferometer pushing the meteors, simulating gravitational waves, calibrating the output of the detector. People were introducing noise in the detector to see how much noise cars introduce when they break, for example, and they had been working until very late in the night and they had stopped working.

    When they stop working, then we begin testing the analysis algorithms. We take data and we do the analysis, computers do the analysis automatically, and then computers put the results on web pages that when people wake up at that time, now we have alerts and they receive phone messages, but at the time since we were testing, then these web pages appeared then people were looking at that. At 5:51 in the morning Eastern Time and Louisiana Central Time, so it was 4:51 in the morning, but people in Florida who wake up early and people in Germany where it was close to noon already, they saw these web pages saying there is something here.

    Plotkin: They receive this in real-time or they process it afterwards?

    González: No, it was hours later. They all thought that this was another test, that this was like the tests we had been doing in the previous days. They called up the operators on side and said, "Are you still doing tests?" They said, "No, everything is fine."

    White: They thought it was a fake signal.

    González: They thought it was a fake signal and it took us a day to convince ourselves that this was not a test.

    White: Wow.

    Plotkin: Did you know from the outset what you had, that would be a Nobel Prize-winning result?

    González: Actually, when we saw it, it was so large in amplitude, I mentioned, this is still the record largest amplitude we've had. We could tell from the frequency of the signals that if they were produced, if it was a gravitational wave, it had been produced by two big black holes of a size that nobody had measured before. That was another reason to think this cannot be real. This is too good to be true.

    Plotkin: There was no known physical explanation for how you could, that blackhole thing.

    González: That's right, there were no black holes known of that size. Before our discovery was 20 solar masses, 20 times the mass of the sun, and this signal, it was produced by two black holes, each one having 30 times the mass of the sun, creating in the end, a bigger black hole.

    White: What is the frequency or infrequency of the collision of two black holes of such magnitude? How often do we expect to see such a collision?

    González: Of course, these things are happening all the time, but they're too far away, and then the signals are very small. The red gravitational wave is going through the earth all the time. The problem is that they were too small for our detector to measure. Now, this first discovery was in 2015. We have improved the sensitivity of the detectors quite a bit in the last observing run that we started on April 1st of this year. We have discovered 33 candidates in the first six months, so about one week.

    White: Wow, pretty good.

    Plotkin: That's amazing.

    White: If I remember correctly, the press release was around five months after the discovery, so I wondered if you could comment on your feelings in between those two points in time. How did you keep it under wraps? Did you want to talk to people about it? What were your instruction?

    González: As I told you in the beginning, we could not believe this was real yet, so we had to be really, really sure before we claimed we had discovered something. We had not started taking data with a detector. We didn't know where the data was like and we know the detectors are very noisy, so it was unlikely that it could be that the new detector decided to have noises that looked like gravitational waves. We couldn't know that until we took some data. That first day, we decided, well, now we have to begin taking data, so we stopped everything else. We began taking data.

    We were going to take data for seven months, but we said we're not going to

    wait seven months, weren't going to take data for one month, analyze that, and then see whether the signal is still significant with respect to the noise. That took a month to take the data, another month or two to analyze it, to deduce what were the masses of the black holes, to do all the analysis. We were going to write a scientific article and send it for peer review and wait for the response before we had a press conference because we wanted a thousand people looking this over, but we all wanted to see a gravitation wave there, so we were very afraid that we had forgotten something.

    We waited for the peer review, it was positive, and then it was on February 11th, 2016 when we went on stage saying we did it.

    Plotkin: You were famously a part of that press conference. What's that kind of experience like? I guess what I wonder is is that a fun experience or is it nerve-wracking?

    González: It was nerve-wracking. In fact, we had been rehearsing this almost every day and it had been getting worse, and worse, and worse, and worse, so we were so nervous that we were sure this was going to be a disaster, but we have to do it. Then, in the end, I think it went okay.

    Plotkin: I can tell you from an outsider's view that it went amazingly well. It was one of the best presentations of research that I've ever seen. I remember the next day, I was working in Australia at the time, so the press conference came very early in our mornings. I didn't get to see it live, but our entire work shut down. It's all everyone was talking about. We were watching replays all of it. It was a big deal.

    González: It was a very big deal. There are so many coincidences in this history. We didn't plan it for this, but that day was the first day that was celebrated as the international day of women and girls in science, and there we were two women scientists among five people. That's not a fraction of women scientists, it was nice to represent that.

    Plotkin: Yes, it was fantastic.

    White: Outreach and science communication is important to us at UNR and I do lots of outreach events here. Happy Hour With a Scientist was one that we did recently. I wondered if you could give your opinion on why you think science education to the general public is important, especially given your position as the spokesperson for LIGO for six years.

    González: I think it's an obligation that we have as scientists. We do our science, which is really expensive. People need to know what we do with money and people need to know that we do cool things, and they need to know also, and I think appreciate that, that we do this kind of science, not because it is applied right away for creating useful technology, which eventually happens, but we do it to understand the universe and that's in the sense of being human. Humanity is almost defined by being curious.

    Plotkin: The example that I always remember was when they were going to service the HoloSpace telescope and it was the public, I feel, that just had the general outcry in saying, "We love these images. We love seeing what's out there in outer space."

    González: That's right and they weren't asking what are going to get out of that, we were going to get images off the sky

    White: Now we have some questions that was submitted from some students in the physics department. The first one is from Emily Chao, a final year physics student and she asks, what is it like working a LIGO? What do you do day-to-day?

    González: Of course, now I'm traveling a lot and giving talks like the one today and tomorrow at UNR, but when I am at LIGO with my graduate students, I have a group with graduate students and postdocs and undergraduate students, we work in a very big team. Anything that we do is about 10 people at least doing it. In general, in the collaboration that I led the time of the discovery, we had more than a thousand people in 20 different countries.

    Plotkin: Wow, I can't imagine those telecoms.

    González: We are talking on the phone all the time in different time zones or sometimes we have to wake up at midnight, sometimes people wake up at 2:00 AM to attend telecoms, but we do it all on teams. We actually have four experiments. We have a very careful schedule of what can be done when.

    Plotkin: Our next question comes from Donna Depollo who is a junior physics student, and she asks, who are the physicists or people who you looked up to throughout your schooling?

    González: My two biggest mentors were my PhD advisor, Peter Saulson at Syracuse University, and actually later this week, I'm going to his 65th birthday party here. We are celebrating his retirement and his birthday. He's been a great mentor and a leader in the fields in the early times, designing the detectors, helping with the design of the initial LIGO detectors, and then the advanced ones.

    Plotkin: So you still work with him closely?

    González: I still, yes.

    Plotkin: That's amazing.

    González: I consider him and his wife my family in the US. Still, my parents, my brother, all my family is still in Argentina except for my husband, but Peter and Sara are my family in the US. Then Ray Wise. Ray Wise, after getting my PhD, I went to work at MIT with Ray Wise. His tenacity and his curiosity, I don't know how he keeps all these things in his head, but he knows about everything, and if he doesn't know, he finds it out and he writes the programs, and he is still active. I think he's long '80s and he still comes to Louisiana works with people, with electronics, with the vacuum systems, fixing things. That's who I want to be.

    White: I think a physicist never retires. They just keep going and going.

    Plotkin: Yes, sounds about right.

    White: Trying to understand everything.

    González: That context, yes.

    Plotkin: Curiosity never goes away.

    González: That's right.

    White: Our next question is from Jacob Molina, a sophomore physics student, and he asks, of the courses you took during your undergraduate and graduate career, which ones did you enjoy the most and which ones do you think were the most useful?

    González: The courses that I liked the best, well, it was probably the first product costing mechanics where one really learns how to apply the math to things that look simple but they're not so simply when you really want to describe them in detail.

    White: I'm currently teaching graduate-level mechanics, so I'm really glad you said that if any of my students are listening.

    González: When I taught, that's the one I like the best, and you use that all the time.

    Plotkin: Andrew Sunquest, whose another physics student here, he asks, if you weren't a physicist, what do you think you would do?

    González: I would be a teacher. I love teaching. That's what I thought I was going to be. My mom was a high school math teacher. I really wanted to be like her, so I wanted to be a teacher. I really love teaching, so that's the beauty of being a professor that I teach, I have students, and then I also do research, so I have the best of both worlds.

    White: We have one more final question. This is not from a student. What does the future hold for gravitational wave astronomy? New detectors, new science, what's the next holy grail?


    González: More than 400 years ago, Galileo used the telescope for the first time, and 400 years later, we have a number of kinds of telescopes and we are still building bigger and better telescopes, so that's going to be the field of gravitational wave. We will be building new detectors and measuring new gravitational waves from new sources, from centuries to come.

    White: I can't wait.

    Plotkin: Yes.

    White: Also, LIGO in space sounds.

    Plotkin: It sounds amazing.

    White: Right.

    Plotkin: Let me get this straight, it's spaceships shooting lasers at each other in space.

    González: It's three satellites, five million kilometers away.

    Plotkin: Five million kilometers.

    González: Actually, I think the latest is two and a half millions, but still.

    Plotkin: Wow, give or take a few million.

    González: They would be orbiting around the sun, not around the earth but around the sun in an orbit behind the earth. They would be about 20 degrees behind the earth, and there would be these three satellites with lasers shooting at each other, getting a few photos at the end of those two and a half million kilometers.

    Plotkin: Amazing. Thank you very much for doing this, this was a lot of fun for us.

    White: Hopefully it was a lot of fun you.

    González: It was a lot of fun for me, thank you. Those were very good questions.

    White: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Discover Science Podcast Series and we'll see you guys next time.

    [00:24:52] [END OF AUDIO]