Professor Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Grant funds research and education project in gravitational-wave science

Marc Favata, assistant professor of Mathematical Sciences, was recently awarded a five-year, $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation for a research and education project that will explore ways in which gravitational waves offer a new way of looking at the universe. The competitive award supports the research and education initiatives of faculty like Favata who are in the early stages of their careers.

Favata is a member of the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO. The international LIGO team made history in 2015 when it detected, for the first time, gravitational waves from two black holes colliding to form one. The detection, which is one of the most significant physics discoveries of the past 50 years, confirmed a key prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 theory of relativity.

According to Favata, the detection of these waves – which are ripples in the curvature of spacetime produced by the collisions of black holes – opened up a new era in observational astronomy and fundamental physics. "As LIGO continues to operate, we expect to find many more black hole systems."

"I feel very humbled – and lucky – to have received this award," says Favata. "I’m gratified that my peers and the NSF thought that the proposed work is worth pursuing."

According to Favata, the LIGO discovery of merging black holes helps to answer fundamental science questions about the nature of the environment in which these black holes formed and how they interacted and evolved before becoming black holes. "Another question we’re trying to answer is 'Was Einstein right?' General relativity has passed every observational test so far. But it’s possible that as our measurements become more precise, we could find a disagreement with Einstein’s theory."

Favata’s CAREER research projects focus on two topics broadly related to these questions. "One will involve extending the theoretical models for the gravitational wave signal to include elliptical orbits. This will help us look for evidence of ellipticity in future LIGO signals – and will let us determine if elliptical orbits could be a potential source of confusion when looking for violations of Einstein’s theory," he explains. The second project involves a phenomenon known as the "memory effect." Favata says, "If we can detect a particular, non-oscillating aspect of the gravitational waves, it would let us test Einstein's theory in a new way or give us insight into the objects that produce these signals."

Getting the Word Out

Montclair State students will be involved in both the project’s research and educational components. “In particular, they will help me to improve the existing 'Sounds of Spacetime' website, which I developed with previous students and which lets people 'listen' to the universe by exploring the analogy between gravitational waves and sound."

In addition to engaging – and educating – a broader public about LIGO’s discoveries through lectures and outreach exhibits, Favata will be organizing a collaborative effort to develop instructional kits that demonstrate the concepts behind LIGO’s work.

"NSF CAREER grants are awarded to the best scholars who have created proposals that offer highly promising research while integrating that research with education," says Robert Prezant, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics. "Dr. Favata created such a proposal, defining his own disciplinary expertise and his dedication to our students, while reflecting the outstanding drive and innovation of our College’s faculty."

Favata joins past Montclair State faculty recipients of the CAREER award: Pankaj Lal, associate professor of Earth and Environmental Studies and associate director of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies at Montclair State University; Stefanie Brachfeld, Earth and Environmental Studies chair and director of the doctoral program in Environmental Management; Biology chair Quinn Vega; and Jamaal Matthews, associate professor of Educational Foundations.

"I’m looking forward to LIGO finding many more signals," says Favata, who is eager to continue expanding the frontiers of gravitational-wave science.