Spotlight on new faculty: Helvi Witek, Gravitation

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.

Recent News

  • In the Media

Albert Einstein was right again. More than 100 years ago, his calculations suggested that when too much energy or matter is concentrated in one place, it will collapse in on itself and turn into a dark vortex of nothingness. Physicists found evidence to support Einstein’s black hole concept, but they’d never observed one directly. In 2017, 200-plus scientists affiliated with more than 60 institutions set out to change that, using eight global radio observatories to chart the sky for 10 days. In April they released their findings, which included an image of a dark circle surrounded by a fiery doughnut (the galaxy Messier 87), 55 million light years away and 6.5 billion times more massive than our sun. “We have seen what we thought was unseeable,” said Shep Doeleman, leader of what came to be known as the Event Horizon Telescope team. The team’s name refers to the edge of a black hole, the point beyond which light and matter cannot escape. In some ways, the first picture of a black hole is also the first picture of nothing.

Institute for Condensed Matter Theory in the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has recently received a five-year grant of over $1 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. The grant is part of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) Initiative, which strives to catalyze major discoveries in the field of quantum materials—solids and engineered structures characterized by novel quantum phases of matter and exotic cooperative behaviors of electrons. This is the second 5-year EPiQS grant awarded to the ICMT by the Moore Foundation. The two awards establish an EPiQS Theory Center at the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory.

  • Outreach
  • Accessibility

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign physics graduate student Colin Lualdi quickly realized he was venturing into uncharted territory when he arrived at Illinois Physics at the start of Fall 2017. Deaf since birth and a native speaker of American Sign Language (ASL), Lualdi was now among a very small group worldwide of Deaf individuals working in physics. The exhilaration of performing cutting-edge research was accompanied by a sobering discovery: the lack of a common language model for effective scientific discourse in ASL was going to be a far greater challenge than he’d anticipated. Lualdi has embraced his own accessibility challenges as an opportunity to address a pressing need in the broader Deaf community. He has teamed up with colleagues at other research institutions to develop a robust and shared framework for scientific discourse in ASL. Specifically, Colin has been working with ASL Clear and ASLCORE, two national scientific sign language initiatives that are making good progress.