Calgary

Physicist Corey Gray finds threads that connect Einstein and his own Blackfoot heritage

Physicist Corey Gray talks about how a shy guy who grew up on the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta idolizing the TV character MacGyver got some love from the Nobel Prize committee.

He's part of the team that was awarded a 2017 Nobel Prize for their work on black holes

Physicist Corey Gray was part of the team that was cited in the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics. He also was instrumental in getting the team's research paper translated into Blackfoot by his mother. (Susan Holzman)

Corey Gray grew up on the Siksika Nation, dreaming of becoming the 'Siksika MacGyver,' after his favourite television character.

Instead, he became a physicist, who works as the lead operator at the LIGO Hanford Observatory near Richland, Wash. 

Gray was also part of the team that discovered the existence of gravitational waves produced by two colliding black holes, which supports Einstein's theory of relativity.

One of the great discoveries of the past century, the team's founders won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. Gray spoke to Rob Brown on The Homestretch Tuesday, before speaking at the Calgary Central Library.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did how did you end up in physics, working for LIGO, to begin with?

A: Maybe happenstance. For my undergraduate studies, I chose physics and math. That was a long time ago. A couple of decades ago my hero when I was a kid was MacGyver, so I wanted to be a Siksika MacGyver.

When I saw the job at LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) in Washington, that's what I applied for right after graduating.

Q: What led to the discovery that got the recognition from the Nobel Prize committee?

A: I work for LIGO — Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, a project funded by the National Science Foundation. LIGO is one of two separate gravitational wave projects.  The other project is in Italy and is called Virgo.  LIGO and Virgo work together in a collaboration.

And so this is 100 years in the making.

Everything that we're doing comes from Albert Einstein. His general theory of relativity came out in 1915 and then in 2015, we made that first detection [of the waves created by two colliding black holes] and the observatory, this machine that we have — the idea [for it] came about in the early 1970s by a professor at MIT named Rai Weiss.

He's one of the people who got the Nobel Prize and he came up with the idea of how to detect these very, very tiny quiet little signals. There's probably an envelope somewhere, where Einstein did the math for it and thought, there's no way we find these tiny, tiny signals from stars crashing.

But fast forward a century. Technology improves, new sources or new thoughts or theories of different types of objects in the universe come about such as black holes and neutron stars — very heavy dense objects.

Those type of objects bend and warp space enough that we are able to see these signals with the type of instruments that LIGO has.

Q: Do you think the discoveries would have been made if Einstein hadn't come up with the theories in the first place?

A: No. Einstein is a freak, because he came onto the scene 100 years ago and he put science on its head with his totally different way of thinking and visualizing gravity.

The equations that he came up with — his field equations for gravity — 100 [years] ago when there's no thoughts of ideas of black holes back then —  those equations are still what we use to be able to to sift through the data with our machines.

It's still an amazing thing when I think about it.

Q: 2019 is already been a big year for black holes, with scientists capturing that first ever image of a black hole. What was that moment like for you?

A. I'm a science nerd, so when I heard that they were going to make their announcement a couple of days beforehand on April 10,  I logged in and got to see that first image with everybody else.

It was just an exciting thing to see an actual visual example. The black hole they looked at was huge — much bigger than the types that we detect with LIGO too.

Q: In your lecture at the Calgary library, you connected Einstein's work with Blackfoot culture. How did you do that?

A. One of the things that I'm most proud of I guess is that I was able to recruit my mother and so when we made that first detection in 2015, we … couldn't say anything about it until we announced in February 2016. So we were under an embargo. We had to keep our mouths shut.

Two weeks before we announced on that February the idea of the press release came out.

There's 15 or 16 other languages and I got somebody to the side of the room and asked, is it OK if I talk to my mom or ask my mom to translate this press release in to Blackfoot?

Without hesitation they said yes, totally. Awesome idea.

I was able to share this big secret with my mom a couple weeks before we announced and she spent about a couple weeks working with other family members and translating the scientific document into an Indigenous language.

Q: Obviously it's personal to you, but why did you want it in Blackfoot? Is it for the next generation as well?

A. It's just a new way of getting our language out there. Language preservation and getting to work with my mom as well — that was another cool thing to have. And she's done five of them so far.

What happens when two black holes collide? How do we measure the consequences? These are big questions, the kind Albert Einstein theorized about more than 100-years ago. Physicist Corey Gray works on these kinds of questions every day. He is the lead operator at the LIGO Hanford Observatory in Washington State. He's also part the team that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics. LIGO stands for: Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. Today Corey Gray is in Calgary talking about the intersection between Albert Einstein and his own Blackfoot Heritage. He grew up on the Siksika Nation. 9:28

With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca