The separation between alumnus Paul Schale ’13 and Albert Einstein has dropped a few degrees. Schale serves with researchers at LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. His job? Search the galaxy for the gravitational waves first discovered a century ago by Einstein but that only now can be directly detected by sensitive instruments able to measure minute ripples in the space-time continuum.
The specific waves Paul searches for using satellite observations are gravitational waves from a type of neutron star called a magnetar. Though they weigh as much as the sun, magnetars are less than 10 miles in diameter and therefore tremendously dense (with extremely strong magnetic fields).
When the waves were first discovered last year, it triggered a global news sensation — and Paul’s name was on the publication.
Paul first became interested in the subject his senior year. “I’d always heard that General Relativity — Einstein’s formulation of gravity that gives rise to gravitational waves — was based on really hard math,” says the University of Oregon graduate student working toward a doctoral degree in physics. He decided for his undergraduate senior project to learn some of that math with the help of his SPU professors.
Paul, past president of SPU’s chapter of the Society of Physics Students, says his future plans will likely include private industry. “There are a lot of companies, especially around Seattle, that have large data sets with valuable information hidden in them,” he says. “That’s most of what I do with LIGO, so it’s great preparation.”