Another Bangladeshi at forefront of gravitational waves discovery

Bangladeshis are proud of Selim Shahriar as the US-based Bangladeshi professor led the team of scientists at Northwestern University in the historic event of detecting the gravitational waves, a discovery that confirms Albert Einstein’s famous theory of relativity.

The US scientists at a news conference in Washington on 11 February said that they detected gravitational waves that were the product of a collision between two black holes, located 1.3 billion light years from Earth. It was detected through LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory]

Professor Selim Shahriar, who leads the experimental portion of Northwestern University’s chapter of the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration, the international consortium that made the groundbreaking discovery, comes from Bera, Pabna, in Bangladesh.

The bulletin of Maccormic School of Engineering at Northwestern University ran a story covering Prof Selim Shahriar’s contributions to the scientific milestone.

[Read more: Selim Shahriar contributes to discovery of gravitational waves]

In a telephonic conversation on Monday [Sunday in USA], Selim Shahriar recalled his days in Bangladesh.

He was a student of Bipin Bihari High School in Bera. His father Azim Uddin Ahmed was a mathematics teacher in the same school.

Prof Selim used to go to the school with his father who used to inspire him on various topics.

“You can accomplish things that others can. Try hard. There is nothing unachievable if you try,” Azim Uddin Ahmed used to tell the young Selim.

A young inspired Selim started dreaming big while walking along the muddy roads to the school with his father.

Born in 1964, Selim grabbed board places both in SSC examination from Bihari High School and in the HSC from Dhaka College.

After that, Selim went to the US to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Spending two years in Dhaka, this village boy went straight to Boston where he found Abdul Wahab Sheikh as a guardian and his family who later became his father-in-law.

According to Selim, his father-in-law had contributions to his foothold in the US.

Talking about himself, Selim said, “I got married early. My elder son Sajid is 29 while younger one Ruman is 21.”

Selim, an electrical engineering and computer science professor at Northwestern University, is also a LIGO member. Selim is also director of the Atomic and Photonic Technology Laboratory [APTL].

In fact, the research papers that were published saying that the gravitational waves were detected have been written by Selim and three of his students.

He has been working to improve the sensitivity of LIGO detectors and broaden the spectrum the detectors are sensitive to for 10 years.

“When Einstein first came up with this idea, it was unimaginable that we would ever be able to measure such a small change,” said Selim in the bulletin after the discovery. “We’re talking about a difference so small that it’s incredible that people can even think about measuring it now.”

At 5:51am on 14 September, 2015, two L-shaped antennas located on opposite sides of the United States blipped out of place. The displacement lasted just 0.2 seconds and moved a distance that is 1,000 times smaller than a proton. But this tiny event carried an enormous amount of information about the birth and nature of the universe.

The event confirms the existence of gravitational waves, a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity.

Shahriar and his team are now working on improving the effectiveness of the LIGO.

“We’ll increase the sensitivity of the equipment 20 times more than it is now. And, we’ve come a long way in this regard,” Shahriar told Prothom Alo.

Shahriar is also working on a second technique that uses atomic clocks — in the form of artificial pulsars — that are placed on other planets and celestial bodies to enable the detection of gravitational waves in a different and very important part of the spectrum.

Up until now, astronomers have only been able to explore the universe using light. Detecting gravitational waves gives them another tool for astronomical exploration that could potentially reveal what happened within the very moments that the universe was born.

“In the first few seconds after the Big Bang, the universe was so dense that light could not escape,” Shahriar said. “So we cannot look at something that happened in the first few seconds by looking at light. Then we have to look at something not produced by light. And that is gravitational waves.”

For the young generation of Bangladesh, Prof Selim said, “You should study physics more. Boys and girls should be encouraged to learn science. You should believe you can do it; you can achieve something bigger.”