Astrophysics at the University of Birmingham

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Physics and Astronomy

Abstract

Most of our knowledge about the Universe at large has been derived from what scientists refer to as "electromagnetic radiation" - ranging from radio waves through infrared radiation and light, to X-rays and gamma rays. This has changed dramatically on September 14, 2015 when we directly detected for the first time ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves. The observational of the first gravitational-wave signal (GW150914) generated by the collision of two black holes has opened a new chapter in astronomy. We have discovered binary black holes, and learnt that every 15 minutes somewhere in the Universe two heavy stellar-mass black holes collide. In fact, since September 2015 we have observed five more collisions of this kind. On August 17, 2017 we observed GW170817, the first merger of a binary neutron star. Electro-magnetic radiation generated in the aftermath of the collision of the two neutron stars was then detected across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from gamma-rays to radio waves, in possibly the most intense observational campaign of a single object in the history of astronomy. This first multi-messenger observation has demonstrated that double neutron star mergers are the engine powering at least some short-hard gamma ray bursts, and an important site for production of heavy elements, such as gold, in the Universe. The Birmingham group has played a key role in the development of the gravitational-wave instruments (Advanced LIGO) that enabled these discoveries, the analysis of the data, the characterisation of the properties of the sources, and the follow-up observational campaign of GW170817. In the coming years we expect to be able to observe a gravitational-wave signal every week, or possibly every day. We are preparing to use these signals from merging black holes and neutron stars to learn more about the evolution of these objects, stars, matter in extreme conditions, and to test our understanding of gravity itself. We are also developing the advanced technology which will be required to make future improvements to gravitational-wave observatories, so that more and much weaker signals can be observed and studied.

The capabilities of more conventional instruments to probe the distant Universe, and the capacity of large computers to simulate the influence of massive black holes at the centre of galaxies, continue to improve. We are bringing these developments together to advance our understanding of how structure in the universe - massive black holes, galaxies and clusters - form and evolve through cosmic time. A hot topic in astrophysics is the effort to understand the mysterious "dark energy" which powers the accelerating expansion of the Universe. We plan to use clusters of galaxies as probes of the structure and expansion history of the Universe on the largest scales, to advance our understanding of the nature of dark energy

Planned Impact

In terms of academic impact, the immediate beneficiaries include the UK (and international) astronomy and physics community, extending far beyond the applicant group. In the longer term, this research will provide new insights into the formation and evolution of massive black holes, galaxies and clusters, underpin reliable measurements of the mysterious component of our Universe that we call "dark energy", using clusters of galaxies. Research in gravitational-wave astronomy is expected to continue to transform our understanding of the Universe, including information on the properties of neutron stars and black holes, and the behaviour of gravity in extreme conditions; in the long-term it will offer a new window on the very early Universe, when it is was a fraction of a second old. This will benefit the widest astronomy/astrophysics community, internationally.

With regard to societal impact, cosmology, astrophysics and black holes, are exciting areas and reliably excellent topics for public outreach. We have directly experienced the broad high-impact generated by the direct detection of gravitational waves and the first multi-messenger observation of a double neutron star coalescence. New activities have been flourishing and we expect this to continue and increase in the future. This progress should also help revitalise public interest in science as a whole at a time when economic pressure could potentially shrink investment in science in general. An improved understanding of cosmology, clusters of galaxies as the largest structures in the cosmos, massive black holes at the centre of galaxies and the most violent collisions in the universe involving black holes and neutron stars, catch the public imagination, and produce demand for creative work. Our public engagements activities have already generated new online media for education and outreach, such as interactive computer games. They have attracted considerable attention and we have been developing these games for tablets and other platforms, which are reaching an even wider audience.

Work that we have carried out in the experimental area has already provided direct benefit to UK industry. Work that we have carried out for the construction of sensors and electronics for Advanced LIGO has already benefited local SMEs with contacts for about £1M. We are developing new quantum technologies and inertial sensors that have the potential of a variety of industrial applications for quantum systems, new gravity-gradient sensors and integrated system models for navigation systems. We plan to carry out a dedicated programme of knowledge transfer and industrialisation together with the Birmingham Quantum Hub and NPL. Our data analysis and statistics work is already finding applications outside our astronomy research in climate studies, and we plan to further develop this aspect of our activities to lead to direct industrial applications and wide societal impact.

Of course, the training which post-doctoral research assistants and PhD students receive within our grant-funded programme is also of much wider benefit to the academic and non-academic communities. For example many of our students and post-doctoral researchers have secured high-profile jobs in the high-tech and data-intensive sectors.

Publications

10 25 50

 
Description Birmingham-Beijing Normal University Instrumentation Fund
Amount £269,638 (GBP)
Organisation Beijing Normal University 
Sector Academic/University
Country China
Start 03/2020 
End 12/2020
 
Description Omni-directional interferometric inertial sensor (OmniSens)
Amount € 2,536,331 (EUR)
Funding ID 865816 
Organisation European Research Council (ERC) 
Sector Public
Country Belgium
Start 08/2020 
End 07/2025
 
Description Royal Society Wolfson Fellowships
Amount £136,637 (GBP)
Funding ID RSWF\R3\183009 
Organisation The Royal Society 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 05/2024
 
Description UK Involvement in LSST: Phase B (University of Birmingham component)
Amount £82,213 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/S006141/1 
Organisation UK Space Agency 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2019 
End 03/2023
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation Durham University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation LIGO
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation University of Glasgow
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation University of Lyon
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation University of Michigan
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description Gravitationally Lensed Gravitational Wave Hunters 
Organisation Virgo Ego Scientific Forum
Country Global 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, paper writing, observing, data analysis,
Impact 2018MNRAS.475.3823S
Start Year 2017
 
Description LSST 
Organisation University of Edinburgh
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution writing proposals, white papers, science roadmaps; collaboration management; working group management;
Collaborator Contribution writing proposals, white papers, science roadmaps; collaboration management; working group management;
Impact observatory construction, software development, observing strategy, scientific exploitation plans
Start Year 2015
 
Description Local Cluster Substructure Survey (LoCuSS) 
Organisation University of Victoria
Country Australia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution proposal writing, collaboration management and leadership, observing, data analysis, interpretation, paper writing and publication
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, observing, data analysis, interpretation, paper writing and publication
Impact outputs: 23 papers, 1156 citations since 2008;
Start Year 2007
 
Description Ultimate XMM Extragalactic Survey (XXL) 
Organisation Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA)
Department Institute of Research into the Fundamental Laws of the Universe (IRFU)
Country France 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution proposal writing, collaboration management and leadership, observing, data analysis, interpretation, paper writing and publication
Collaborator Contribution proposal writing, collaboration management and leadership, observing, data analysis, interpretation, paper writing and publication
Impact 17 articles (4 published, 13 in press)
Start Year 2012
 
Title Birmingham Enviroment for Software Testing 
Description Software testing algorithm to track the scientific predictions of modelling software used in the optics community. Checks the predictions and stores this in a database that researchers can use verify the validity of the computer model for the version of the software that they used. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Development of Finesse3 - an essential tool in the development of 3rd generation gravitational wave detectors. 
URL https://best.sr.bham.ac.uk:8080/
 
Title Chirp 
Description Web app and mobile app to collate Gravitational Wave events as they are detected by LIGO and display this in a friendly way for researchers and the general public. 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact ~1000 unique users per day. 
URL http://chirp.sr.bham.ac.uk/
 
Title Interferometer simulation software FINESSE 
Description FINESSE is a fast and easy to use interferometer simulation to design and debug laser interferometers. We wanted to be able to simulate many different user-defined optical setups and we would like to playfully teach and learn more about laser optics. FINESSE has a long pedigree and has benefited from years of real-life employment by the optics groups of gravitational wave detectors. 
Type Of Technology Software 
Year Produced 2016 
Open Source License? Yes  
Impact FINESSE is used by all gravitional wave detector groups world wide. It has been cited in more than 100 scientific reports and papers. The new update of FINESSE released this year includes important new features related to radiation pressure and quantum noise, which are crucial for the design of upgrades to current detecors and designing future detectors, both activities are priorities of the community at the moment. 
URL http://www.gwoptics.org/finesse/
 
Company Name Laser Labs Games CIC 
Description Laser Labs is a small scale developer for educational apps. Our aim is to promote science using well designed and fun apps. Our endeavour can be traced back to the Gravitational Wave Group at the University of Birmingham where we developed our first applications, from simple simulations to arcade-style games. These were soon used at science fairs by ourselves and by other scientists around the world. The apps work well for attracting an audience and for providing talking points to introduce specific research topics. Our applications became an important element in a highly ranked impact case study for the REF 2014, a regular process for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. We are currently preparing a new impact case study for REF 2021 which includes the evolution of this activity. Laser Labs Games CIC, or Laser Labs for short, was founded to provide the legal structure for bringing our applications to the well known app stores. We are now recreating our applications for modern devices and technologies, and continue to work with research groups to discuss new ideas and to develop new apps to help bringing science to the masses. 
Year Established 2016 
Impact We succesfull managed to port two of our apps Pocket Black Hole and Strecth and Squash to mobile apps in time for the announcement of the first graviational wave detection. Many of the groups in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration used these apps during the public engagement activities around the event. We later published a mobile version of Space Time Quest and are now preparing Black Hole Master for mobile. We further published Chirp, which has become the main way many people check and access GW alerts from LIGO and Virgo.
Website https://www.laserlabs.org/
 
Description A 6D interferometric isolator 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to a mixed community of gravitation and nano-scale researchers highlighting the importance of vibration reduction for future gravitational wave observatories.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://agenda.infn.it/event/17248/
 
Description An update on the progress of the 6D interferometric isolator 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact An invited talk to the OzGrav consortium at their monthly meetings.
There was quite some interest, especially from colleagues a the University of Western Australia, who also work with low-frequency experiments.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ozgrav.org/
 
Description Astronomy in the City 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Astronomy in the City is a series of free all-ticket public events, each packed with astrophysics; stargazing, and tea and biscuits. Evenings begin with talks covering astronomical highlights and recent research, and a question-and-answer session (for everything from beginner's questions about the night sky to the latest work done here in Birmingham).
Afterwards, we host planetarium shows and (if the weather cooperates) we have observing with telescopes on campus. These events happen 4 times a year and attract ~250 members of the public to each one. They have been running since 2014.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016,2017,2018,2019,2020
 
Description BBC Digital Planet 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interview on the digital planet about the construction of Gravity Synth - a performative art piece combining gravitational wave technology and audio synthesis.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cszbwy
 
Description Large Synoptic Survey Telescope 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Several hundred members of the Insitute of Physics from the Worcester region and their families, school children and friends attended a public lecture that I gave about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Mobile App Development - Chirp 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Developed mobile app to communicate LIGO-Virgo gravitational-wave alerts to the general public. ~1000 unique users per day.
Press release URL: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/latest/2019/11/mobile-app-to-provide-the-latest-on-black-hole-collisions-and-merging-neutron-stars.aspx
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020
URL http://chirp.sr.bham.ac.uk
 
Description Optomechanics for Gravity 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This is a talk presented at The British Optomechanical Research Network workshop organised by University of Nottingham. I provided an overview talk on how to study gravitational physics using optomechanics/
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Path Towards kHz Gravitational-Wave Astronomy 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This is a talk given at the China-UK GREAT Network Workshop organised by University of Glasgow. In the talk, I presented ideas to improve the sensitivity of gravitational-wave detectors at kHz for probing neutron star physics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public talk at ZEISS 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Public talk about gravitational waves hosted by the company Zeiss in Germany. Audience of about 50 persons, most of whom senior engineers at the company. The talk led to several individual contacts. We are currently exploring further collaboration of Zeiss with the GW community for research into optical test masses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Quantum Correlations of Light Mediated by Gravity 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact This is a talk presented at the Macroscopic quantum superpositions (MaQS) worshop organised by Imperial College London. I presented an approach to probing the quantum nature of gravity using optomechanical devices.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.imperial.ac.uk/quantum-engineering-science-technology/maqs-workshop/
 
Description RAS public lecture 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact about 250 people from the general public attended the public lectures that sparkled interest and questions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://ras.ac.uk
 
Description TEDX Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact TEDX Talk on parallels in Gravitational Wave instrumentation, technology development and art
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://youtu.be/QLyPZRVQZPc
 
Description Workshop: Computer games for? Education and Outreach 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Interdisciplinary workshop hosted by us, with students and staff from other disciplines attending. The focus was developing game-like interactions for public engagement with research. Afterwards undergraduate students from other schools contacted us for joint projects in this area.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description public talk at UCL for Spins UK 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact about 100 people attended the talk that sparkled questions and interest
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.spins-uk.net
 
Description talk at national space student conference 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact about 200 students attended talk with sparkled questions and discussions
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://ukseds.org/aurora/?p=nssc2020