Major award for gravitational wave researcher

Issued: Mon, 15 Mar 2021 09:00:00 GMT

A University of Glasgow physicist’s contributions to the field of gravitational-wave astronomy have been recognised with an international award. 

Dr Christopher Berry, a lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy and a research professor at Northwestern University’s CIERA (Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics), has been named as this year’s recipient of a Young Scientist Prize from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP). 

A portrait of Dr Christopher Berry of the School of Physics and Astronomy

Dr Berry received the IUPAP General Relativity and Gravitation Young Scientist Prize, awarded by the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation. 

The IUPAP Young Scientist Prizes recognize outstanding achievements of scientists in the early stages of their career. Each prize consists of a certificate citing the contributions made by the recipient, a medal and 1000 euros. 

Dr Berry’s award citation states that he was selected ‘for key contributions to gravitational-wave discoveries, mentoring and leadership to support the research community, and effective public outreach.’ 

Professor Nils Andersson, of the University of Southampton, president of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation, said: “It is a great pleasure to congratulate Christopher on the young scientist award. The panel was truly impressed by the impact of his research and his broad range of outreach activities." 

Gravitational-wave astronomy is a new form of astronomy which enables us to study the mergers of massive objections like neutron stars and black holes. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime first predicted by Einstein in 1916. Due to their miniscule effects on Earth, they are extremely difficult to detect, and the first observation was made in 2015 by the Advanced LIGO detectors. 

Dr Berry is an expert in gravitational-wave data analysis and the astrophysics of black holes. He is an active member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. His research covers a range of areas from modelling the evolution of binary star systems to studying sources of noise in the LIGO detectors. He worked on LIGO’s historic first detection of gravitational waves, led analysis of the GW170104 signal in 2017, and is currently active analysing discoveries for LIGO and Virgo’s third observing run. 

Dr Berry said: "I am extremely lucky to be working at such a revolutionary time for gravitational-wave astronomy. Since making our first detection five years ago, we have continued to make discovery after discovery, each adding a new piece to our knowledge about black holes and neutron stars. It has been incredibly exciting to be a part of these breakthroughs—especially when you are the first person to analyse a new gravitational-wave signal and, for that short moment, you are the only person to know the properties of the source! The advancements we have made in such a short time are really a testament to the teamwork of the LIGO Scientific and Virgo Collaboration, and I am proud to have worked alongside so many wonderful scientists.” 

Dr Berry completed his undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University of Cambridge, where he worked on a range of topics connected to gravity with a particular interest in the future space-based gravitational-wave observatory LISA. 

In 2013, he moved to the University of Birmingham as a postdoctoral research fellow, joining the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and developing expertise in understanding gravitational-wave signals.

In 2018, Christopher became the inaugural CIERA Board of Visitors Research Professor at Northwestern University, where he developed his research into the astrophysical origins of black holes and neutron stars. He joined the University of Glasgow as Lecturer in the School of Physics & Astronomy in 2020, and is a member of the Institute for Gravitational Research. He has especially enjoyed the opportunity to mentor students working in the field. 

Dr Berry added: "I love sharing what we have learnt from our research. It is extremely rewarding to know that people take an interest in what you do, it makes all the hard work worthwhile. This is doubly true when you pass on the enthusiasm for discovery to new students, who will then go on to make their own breakthroughs.” 

Following the initial observation in gravitational-waves in 2015, improvements in the global detector network has lead to a rapid increase in observations. The most recent catalogue consists of 50 observations, including some unexpected discoveries, such as the signal GW190521 which comes extremely massive binary black hole merger and GW190814 which comes from a with a mysterious component that lies between previously known neutron stars and black holes. Dr Berry is working on using the population of detections to uncover the secrets of how black holes and neutron stars form. 

Dr Berry said: "Gravitational-wave astronomy is still growing. We are still actively working on analysing data from our third observing run, which is keeping me very busy. Looking further ahead, the rate of discovery is only going to increase. These new observations will completely change how we look at the universe and understand black holes.”