For the rest of 2012, I’m living in Richland, Washington, working on my thesis at the LIGO Hanford Observatory. The observatory is in the Columbia Plateau, in the middle of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. A Manhattan Project installation turned Superfund site isn’t the most glamorous setting, but the observatory itself is a wonder. It’s one of a very small class of gravitational wave interferometers, and it’s got fascinating problems that I’m learning how to solve.
Before I get too far into talking about the observatory, I’ll tell you a little about what we’re trying to find. The equations of general relativity describe gravity as the curvature of spacetime around mass. These equations allow for solutions that look strikingly like waves, which should travel through spacetime, distorting lengths by miniscule amounts as they pass. I’m working on upgrading an interferometer, a precision instrument for measuring the difference in length between two paths of a laser beam.
I’ve been thrown into the middle of a major upgrade test, and I’ve had a chance to work with almost all of the pieces involved in making the interferometer function. I’ve worked on optics tables, aligning laser beams and troubleshooting optical noise. I’ve tested electronics, found errors in the systems, and repaired them. I’ve taken data about the characteristics of the optical system and analyzed the results. Recently, I’ve even had a chance to dip into writing software to control small parts of the interferometer system.
Although I’m not working the crazy hours of weeks one and two anymore, I haven’t had a slow day yet. There’s always plenty of things to do, and if it looks like my workload is about to ease up, there’s always a senior scientist with a new technique for me to apply or another student that needs help hunting down noise sources or soldering electronics. Even better, none of it is busywork. All of the things I’m doing are important to the operation of the interferometer, which keeps me focused and motivated to turn my projects over quickly and completely.
I’ve got a few complaints, of course. Having parts of your project fail spectacularly and having to work long hours trying to diagnose and rectify the problem is an unavoidable part of science, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I’m also not pleased with how badly my body reacts to the temperature contrast between 100 F outside and 70 F inside. I’m living in the desert in the middle of summer, and something seems wrong about being perfectly comfortable in jeans, sweatshirt, scarf, and wool socks.
I miss some things about Michigan too. I’m pretty close with my family, and we don’t get many opportunities to talk since I get home after 8 EST every day. I also had to go long-distance with my boyfriend again. Although we’ve come out of previous long-distance periods stronger, I don’t need any more convincing that we have a healthy and fulfilling relationship, and it would be great if circumstances would let us live closer together for once. On a completely different note, I miss Ann Arbor food. Richland simply doesn’t have many restaurants. The neighboring city of Kennewick has more, but when I think about Ann Arbor’s vibrant restaurant scene, it seems pretty ridiculous to have to go five or six miles from a dense residential area to go out to eat. There’s an astounding lack of delivery too. If I want to pay someone to bring me food, my options are pizza or pizza.
Given the way things have started, I’m looking forward to a fun and productive period of fieldwork. I like being busy, and I like having to constantly learn and adapt to keep up with my day-to-day activities. I also feel an amount of pride when I master a concept well enough to debate it with other staff members. I’ve been marking off the weeks, and I’m not sure whether I’m more excited that I’m a month closer to going home, or disappointed that I’m only here for five more!
About the Author
Jax Sanders, Ph.D. Student, Physics
Published in: Student Voices