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

Walking to school as a child, UC San Diego visiting professor Smitha Vishveshwara asked her father, a black hole physicist, what he did for a living.

“He’d say, ‘Oh, I show that you can’t really kick a black hole.’ He’d be very playful,” said Vishveshwara, who lives in Solana Beach. “What he really meant was that he showed that black holes were stable entities.”

Through her father’s work, she learned about Margaret Burbidge, an influential astronomer, astrophysicist and the first director of UC San Diego’s Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. Coming full circle, Vishveshwara now serves as the university’s Margaret Burbidge visiting professor of physics.

  • Education

When Physics senior lecturer Eugene Colla begins remotely teaching his Modern Experimental Physics course in June, he’ll be ready. Colla and his co-instructor, Prof. Virginia (Gina) Lorenz, collaborated with physics teaching lab specialist, Jack Boparai, and a team of teaching assistants to successfully convert the course to virtual instruction midway through spring semester in response to COVID-19.

Online conversion was no small feat for Colla, who has taught Physics 403 since 2004 and has watched the class size more than double in that time. The spring semester saw 28 students, including three exchange students from the United Kingdom.

  • Research Funding

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, through its Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative (EPiQS), has awarded substantial research funding to two experimental condensed matter physicists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Physics Professors Peter Abbamonte and Vidya Madhavan will receive EPiQS Experimental Investigator awards of $1.6 million each over the next five years.

EPiQS prioritizes high-risk, high-reward fundamental research programs in quantum materials, to foster scientific breakthroughs. EPiQS experimental investigators have the freedom to pursue challenging and novel research directions of the scientists’ own choosing.

  • research

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Grainger College of Engineering have experimentally demonstrated a new way to transport energy even through wave-guides that are defective and even if the disorder is a transient phenomenon in time. This work could lead to much more robust devices that continue to operate in spite of damage.

Gaurav Bahl, associate professor in mechanical science and engineering, and Taylor Hughes, physics professor, published their findings in Nature Communications. This important work was led by postdoctoral researcher Inbar Grinberg, also in mechanical science and engineering.