Spotlight on new faculty: Helvi Witek, Gravitation

11/12/2019

Jessica Raley for Illinois Physics

The Department of Physics at Illinois welcomes an extraordinary set of ten new faculty members this year. Eight of them have arrived on campus and have begun setting up their labs and settling into life in Champaign-Urbana. Two more faculty are set to arrive in January. We will feature each of them here over the next couple of weeks. Check back regularly to learn more about the exciting work these new faculty members are doing.

Professor Helvi Witek (left) discusses binary black hole simulations with Kings College London graduate students Matthew Elley (front), Guiseppe Ficarra (back, left) and Katarina Martinovik (back, right). Credit: Megan Grace-Hughes
Professor Helvi Witek (left) discusses binary black hole simulations with Kings College London graduate students Matthew Elley (front), Guiseppe Ficarra (back, left) and Katarina Martinovik (back, right). Credit: Megan Grace-Hughes

Professor Helvi Witek

Helvi Witek specializes in black holes, gravity, and gravitational waves and how we can use them to understand open questions about the universe. Although the collisions that generate gravitational waves detected by LIGO are extremely energetic, the signal is very weak – like trying to measure the distance from London to Champaign to within the size of a proton. Helvi models collisions of black holes on supercomputers to make predictions about what the signal from these events would look like, which allows researchers to separate the signal from the noise. She says, “For me, the supercomputer is my laboratory.” One of the questions she is interested in exploring through her research is “How can we use this powerful technology to address open questions in fundamental science?” For example, she says, “We can use black holes to look for certain types of dark matter candidates that would not be accessible with traditional experiments.” Helvi will join the Illinois Physics faculty in January 2020.