Expert Voices

'LIGO: A Passion for Understanding' — The Minds Behind the Film

LIGO Observatory Vertex Area
A technician works on the vertex area of one of the two LIGO Observatory facilties. Image taken from "LIGO, A Passion for Understanding" video by Kai Staats. (Image credit: Kai Staats)

Kai Staats is an entrepreneur, writer, filmmaker and now student at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, Cosmology Research Group, Cape Town, South Africa where he is working to earn his masters degree in applied mathematics. In his former life in corporate America, Kai was founder and CEO of a Linux OS and HPC systems company where his team helped researchers and scientists improve performance in supercomputing systems. He contributed this article to's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights

The hunt for gravitational waves is a frontier physics effort that relies on one of the most sensitive measuring instrument humankind has ever created — and with this effort's underlying goal of capturing some of the largest events in the universe, those in the field see inspiration as a core mission.

The documentary "LIGO: A Passion for Understanding" delivers the science behind the search, conveying the raw enthusiasm and excitement of the researchers who have dedicated their careers to this immense undertaking and the groundbreaking, ultra-sensitive technology behind this new generation of "telescope." [Mysteries of Gravitational Waves Star in New LIGO Documentary (Film Trailer )]

Shot over two weeks in December 2013 at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Hanford, Wash., this 20-minute film shares the passion for understanding, discovery and collaboration of those who spend a lifetime working to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

What follows is a bit of the backstory behind the research and the film, followed by brief essays from several LIGO researchers: Gabriela González of Louisiana State University, Marco Cavaglià of the University of Mississippi, Szabolcs Márka of Columbia University Michael Landry of LIGO Hanford Observatory/Caltech, and myself, as the film's director.

An introduction to gravitational waves

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity predicts that accelerating massive bodies will generate gravitational waves, causing distortions in space-time . By studying these gravitational waves, astrophysicists will be able to look for relatively recent, local events, such as the formation of black holes, while also peering far back in time to learn about the birth of the universe.

About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, gravitational waves left an imprint on the cosmic microwave background radiation seen today. Researchers at BICEP2, a unique tool used to detect polarization in the cosmic microwave background caused by gravitational waves, recently announced they found evidence for the existence of primordial gravitational waves in the cosmic microwave background radiation. Scientists worldwide celebrated this achievement as a great success, and proof that you could "do astrophysics" with gravitational waves. More-precise measurements will soon confirm this breakthrough in cosmology, revealing more about the universe shortly after the Big Bang. [Major Discovery: 'Smoking Gun' for Universe's Incredible Big Bang Expansion Found]

While gravitational waves have been an exciting, hot research topic for decades, the next few years will bring a new level of discovery. Astrophysicists believe gravitational waves could carry information about previously unexplored phenomena, such as the birth of black holes when neutron stars collide, and other violent, astrophysical events.

The two, L-shaped, LIGO detectors — one located at Hanford, Wa and the other at Livingston, La., are not telescopes, but incredibly sensitive ''interferometers." Each arm of the "L" is 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) long, and they house two perpendicular halves of a split laser beam, along with the equipment to measure the phase difference (interference) between the two halves. If a gravitational wave shortens or lengthens either of the two laser arms, it will be out of phase when reflected back and reunited with its pair at its source. Only these detectors, among most sensitive measuring devices ever created, can register that phase shift, on the order of 1/10,000 the size of a proton, which holds information about the massive cosmic event that created it.

A tool for observing the universe

The gravitational waves detected by LIGO will most likely come from the coalescence of neutron stars and black holes . These astrophysical events occur very rarely, however — only once every 10 thousand years, per galaxy. These events may be taking place now in galaxies tens to hundreds of millions of light-years away, but by the time the associated space-time distortions reach Earth, they will be small and difficult to detect.

While LIGO's original detectors went online in 2002, the installation of next-generationadvanced LIGO detectors is nearing completion. The new system will have 10 times the sensitivity of the previous equipment, and will be able to detect neutron star and black hole mergers in tens of thousands of galaxies, allowing astrophysicists to see many events each year.

The LIGO detectors are part of the LIGO Laboratory, operated and managed by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF). More than 200 people work in the LIGO Laboratory (at Caltech, MIT and both observatories), 900 people worldwide in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and hundreds of colleagues in sister projects — all working to prepare for this new era in gravitational wave astronomy, to open a new window to the universe.

The film

In 2011, astrophysicist Gaurav Khanna of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, encouraged me to share my passion for science through film — and just one year ago, Gaurav introduced me to Gabriela Gonzalez at LIGO, and the project took form.

Gonzalez, Cavaglià, Márka and I worked to prepare the concept, funding proposal and outline of the film, and in late November 2013 it was approved. The next month, I spent two weeks on-site at the LIGO Observatory outside of Richland, Wash., interviewing and filming, completing the project over the next three months.

This is an unusual film in some respects, for it does not tell a complete story. I cut the interviews to provide only brief interludes as a reflection of the rapidly unfolding intensity at LIGO. I wanted to capture the palatable excitement for the final installation of the next-gen "Advanced LIGO" systems — newly developed control software — and for the many coming months of testing prior to first light. I was in awe that a project now in its second decade and still two or three years from detecting gravitational waves (which is not guaranteed!) could maintain such incredible individual, and shared, energy.

From the moment I arrived, I was made to feel welcome. I asked many questions for the film and for my own understanding, and no one rolled their eyes. No one complained that they did not have time. Rather, each of the scientists, researchers and engineers went out of his or her way to explain all that LIGO was designed to do and what it would mean, if it succeeds, to humanity's collective understanding of the universe.

LIGO has the kind of self-motivated, can-do, collaborative working atmosphere that corporations dream of. Yet, most scientists and researchers choose this path not to make money or to become famous, but simply because they desire to know how the universe works.

With our film, we aim to share this very real passion of dedicating oneself to a life of discovery, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.

Perspective from Michael Landry

At the LIGO sites, we spend a lot of time worrying about minutiae. Aligning an exquisitely polished optic suspended by glass fibers to a handful of microradians. Tailoring a digital feedback loop to suppress frequency noise in a laser. Painstakingly vacuuming and removing miniscule dust particles that contaminate vacuum chambers.

So, when someone comes along and says, "I'd like to make a film about the science of LIGO," it's a jarring and pleasant reminder of our collective and ambitious goal: nothing short of detecting gravitational wave-strain in the laboratory, testing Einstein's relativity in the field of strong gravity and generating a new branch of astronomy in the process.

Kai Staat's new film "LIGO: A Passion for Understanding" provides a snapshot of observatory life as scientists, engineers and technicians labor over some of the minutiae of the LIGO project during a two-week period. Interspersed are their thoughts on the astrophysics the project is investigating, and of collaborating on a common scientific goal. Their voices reveal passion and dedication focused on a remote and extremely difficult task. But, not one that is unattainable: Technology has progressed to a point where it is conceivable to make this absurdly tiny relative-length measurement, to approximately 1/10,000th the size of a proton. The technology stems from hundreds of people's efforts and several decades of basic research.

I think their stories will convert some interested viewers onto a path toward scientific careers. People will see a way to make a life in curiosity-based research — just as I recall walking through Vancouver's Pacific rainforest on my first visit to the TRIUMF lab for subatomic physics, musing, "I think I see a way," a way to make a career in physics.

The stories of our group are not unique, but are being played out throughout our collaboration, at our sister lab in LIGO Livingston, La., where researchers are building an identical detector; at the GEO600 instrument in Germany, where they use squeezed light to improve the high-frequency response of their interferometer; and at each of the university sites that are home to LIGO scientists and engineers, where they might hone their codes to tease out from data ever fainter whispers of gravitational waves from spinning neutron stars.

We share a collective confidence that we have the detectors that will find gravitational waves at Earth, that this basic research is a valuable contribution to society, and that we are better off for the investment of time and resources in the enterprise. As we close in on the goal of completing the installation of Advanced LIGO interferometers at both LIGO Livingston and LIGO Hanford observatories, Kai has given us the opportunity to stop and reflect on the science — science we believe is nearly at hand.

— Michael Landry, Lead Scientist, LIGO Hanford Observatory/Caltech

Perspective from Gabriela González

There is nothing easy about this complex task, hunting for gravitational waves. Dead ends are common, but new paths that lead to success always follow. The excitement of such an immense undertaking attracts great talent. And it all happens in a highly collaborative environment. Our enthusiasm — the raw passion — is what we worked to express in this film.

I have been personally involved in building the LIGO detectors for more than two decades, since doing my Ph.D. work, which was related to the detectors. Others have been working for this even longer, like Rai Weiss, emeritus professor at MIT. Even though this road has been so long, the field attracts young people every year.

What's inspiring about the LIGO enterprise is not only the exciting science we are doing, both in precision instrumentation and in astronomy, but the passion this generates — passion that still makes "senior" people work on this effort as hard as the young people who spend long days and nights at the observatory to put the detector together and make everything work.

The stereotype of a scientist in many people's minds is a gray-haired, slightly crazy old man writing on his blackboard. However, all kinds of people conduct modern science, young and old (we all start young and get older!) — men and women of all ethnicities, backgrounds and interests. The common thread is the passion for understanding, and that's why making this film with people doing science on-site was important to me. [12 Amazing Women Who Totally Rocked at Science ]

Science attracts great talent every year, but also loses a lot of great talent to other paths. We need all kinds of people doing all kinds of things — but I fear people sometimes choose other fields because they cannot see themselves in the stereotype of a scientist. I hope this film helps change that stereotype, and helps students in school and in college make a more informed choice for their careers.

When Kai Staats approached me with an interest in making a short film on gravitational waves and LIGO, I jumped at the idea. In the LIGO Livingston Education Center, I see the impact the NSF movie "Einstein's Messengers" has made on young people up close, and I wanted to show the new efforts as we complete installation of the new Advanced LIGO detectors.

I brought in close collaborators who are also very committed to education and outreach, Marco Cavaglia and Szabi Marka, who have been incredibly enthusiastic about this project. We reached out to Mike Landry at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, where he leads the installation of the detector, and he immediately came on board. And we approached David Reitze, director of the LIGO Laboratory, who not only liked the idea, but offered laboratory support to get things done rapidly.

This film project came together quickly — with only 10 days from funding to shooting, and then two months to edit — and the result is fantastic. I hope people enjoy it as much as we do, and I hope it helps people see themselves working as young, enthusiastic scientists toward a great discovery — no grey hair is required to start!

— Gabriela González, spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University

Perspective from Marco Cavaglià

I live and work in Mississippi, a state that ranks at the bottom, or near the bottom, of the 50 U.S. states in early education. In my state, you can count the number of high school teachers with physics degrees on one hand. How can the United States increase educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and ensure a leading role for this country in innovation and scientific research, if many states don't even have teachers for these subjects?

Outside the school setting, the situation is no better. A lack of resources often limits the opportunities for young audiences to engage in STEM. If the United States is to remain a world leader in science and technology, it must promote the growth of science, improve science literacy and increase educational opportunities. Scientists, in particular, have a moral obligation to do so.

Big science can truly inspire diverse audiences and increase their interest in science and technology. The challenge is to find a way to explain to the public, especially young people, that "people like them" accomplish frontier scientific research and innovation, and that these breakthroughs can happen in their backyards. Doing that would attract more, and more-diverse, people into science. I believe "LIGO: A Passion for Understanding" does this very well.

Being part of a scientific collaboration is so different than working, say, in a for-profit company. In the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), we feel we belong to something special, that we're part of something much bigger than ourselves. More than 900 people now work in the LSC. With so many collaborators, we of course have disagreements from time to time, but we all work, always, toward the same goal. The film makes this very clear. I knew this about scientific research before, but watching the excitement of the people being interviewed in the film made me even more aware of it. Their excitement is contagious, and I hope it will show the public what being part of a scientific collaboration really means.

Films, and new media in general, play an important role in drawing people into the field of science — especially young people. Of course, I don't expect every student who watches the film to magically decide to pursue a career in science. But if this movie could show a few more people what science is, and who scientists are, we will have accomplished our purpose.

Then, one never knows — I don't remember who said it first, but outreach is like seeding a field — you need to spread many seeds because only a few will germinate. A film has the potential to reach many young people. If '"LIGO: A Passion for Understanding" will inspire just one of its spectators to blossom into a scientist, that alone would be worth all the time and effort spent in making this film.

In the LSC, we knew we needed a new documentary film about Advanced LIGO. We also wanted an innovative product showing the human component of the research project, a portrait of the many people working together toward the common goal of directly measuring gravitational waves, of better understanding the origin of the universe and humanity's place in it.

My LSC colleagues and I discussed a film project time and again. Then one day we received an email from filmmaker Kai Staats. We reviewed his portfolio and immediately knew we had found our man! I helped Kai a bit during the production of the film, offering advice here and there — well, perhaps I drove him crazy from time to time — but working with Kai was an incredible experience. I learned a lot about filmmaking — and it really was fun.

— Marco Cavaglià, associate professor, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Mississippi

Perspective from Szabolcs Márka

Science is one of the few human endeavors in which paradigm shift and disruptive innovation is not only desired, it is the Holy Grail for many scientists. Astrophysics and cosmology are beautiful and blooming fields, in which regular gravitational wave observations can have dramatic effects.

It is as hard to give birth to a pioneering fields as it is to break a fresh trail into the Himalaya Mountains. However, in both cases, those first views of new vistas are uniquely fascinating. It is a worthwhile trip, and we are very much excited to take everybody with us on our path to discovery.

I love being a scientist at LIGO, one of the most vibrant academic communities in the world, where my broad interest and thirst for knowledge — from instrumentation through fundamental science to humanitarian impact — can blossom unimpeded.

I am totally intrigued by the birth and death of cosmic black holes, and other eye-opening cosmic events accessible through multi-messenger astrophysics. However, I strongly believe that beyond seeking fundamental discoveries, scientists should also invest in bettering human life here on Earth, utilizing their experience and creativity.

Universities provide the three interleaved tenets of modern civilization: preservation, communication and advancement of human heritage. These are critical not only for us today, but for our predecessors and descendants. Passing on our excitement, passion, and love for nature is not only our deep desire but also a critical duty.

If you're a topical expert — researcher, business leader, author or innovator — and would like to contribute an op-ed piece, email us here. (Image credit:

Szabolcs Márka is a Walter O. LeCroy Jr. Associate Professor of Physics at Columbia University in the City of New York

Perspective from Kai Staats

I still recall that sensation of total bewilderment when, as a child on my grandparents' farm in Iowa, I looked up to the rich, night sky above the farm house, fields of corn and timber. As I caught my first glimpse of the rings of Saturn through a telescope I had constructed, it lifted up not just my mind, but my entire imagination. I am fortunate to have never lost that child-like sense of wonder, nor the physiological response when my mind makes a cognitive leap into a whole new paradigm.

As the former CEO of a Linux OS and supercomputing company, I spent 10 years at the U.S. Department of Energy laboratories and on the campuses of NASA and several universities. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Fermi in particular, when my sales pitch or installation of an HPC system finished, I didn't want to leave. Secretly, I wanted someone to offer me a job — any job — so that I could remain there, working with some of the smartest, most creative people on the planet.

Three years ago I embraced my passion for learning once again, not as an HPC architect or as a business developer, but as a filmmaker. The camera has taken me around the world, from a robotics lab at NASA Ames to an astronomy camp in upstate New York; from the transit of Venus across the sun as seen from Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to the West Bank of Palestine; from Sutherland and the largest telescope in Africa to LIGO, the world's most advanced gravitational-wave observatory.

With each film project, I have learned — about those I interview, and about myself, too. Now I am working to earn my masters degree in applied mathematics in order to be able to better share the work of scientists with my audience.

In my time at the LIGO site in Washington state, I realized that if high school and college students better understood the incredible challenge and ultimate reward of "big science," the United States would not suffer an attrition of those seeking a science education. Instead, learners would actively seek careers in science, and the country's society as a whole would become better acquainted with the intrinsic value of science exploration.

Personally, I believe most of the challenges the world faces, in every country on the planet, do find some level of resolution through education. Science education, more than any other type, gives people the vocabulary and method of thinking that enables them to communicate their questions about the world and what they have discovered. Science education grants people opportunity to replace dogma with tolerance, and fear with understanding.

Through astronomy, people turn their eyes to the sky overhead and look far beyond their daily lives, hundreds of millions of years back in time. It gives everything a new perspective. As astronomer and educator Mponda Malozo said to me in rural Tanzania last year, "Oh! And we are so very small!"

Yes, Mponda, we are very small … yet everyone remains incredibly important and has a story to tell.

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