Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime—almost a century ago. But until recently there was no way to observe them. But thanks to the work of Dr. Nergis Mavalvala and her colleagues at MIT, Einstein’s theory is now a proven phenomenon.
Last week, the ultrasensitive telescope her team built detected gravitational waves for the first time, created from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago.
“Theoretically a consequence of violent cosmic events—the collisions of black holes, the explosive deaths of stars, or even the big bang—gravitational waves could provide a brand new lens for studying the universe,” writes Science magazine.
Women are a rarity in the sciences—LGBT Pakistani women exceedingly so. But Mavalvala, 47, told Science magazine, “I don’t mind being on the fringes of any social group.”
The self-described “out queer person of color” and mom to a 8-year-old says being an outsider, “you are less constrained by the rules.”
Helping with lifting some of those constraints was the MacArthur “Genius Grant” she received in 2010, which came with a $625,000 stipend.
“I am just myself,” she says modestly. “But out of that comes something positive.”
In the early 1990s Mavalvala, was mentored by MIT professor Rainer Weiss, who was researching gravitational waves.
The difficulty in detecting these phenomena has always been screening out minute distortions.
Just about anything can move the mirrors by much larger amounts: a car speeding in the distance, a seismic tremor, a clap of thunder. Even the distortion caused by the laser beam itself would need to be accounted for after the system had been shielded against all those external disturbances.
“Making the mirrors stay still is something we devote a lot of attention to,” says Mavalvala. “If there is misalignment, the beam could just walk off into the desert instead of hitting its partner.”
To help, she devised an automatic alignment system that was incorporated into the the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a joint project between MIT and CalTech.
Mavalvala came to the U.S. from Pakistan as a teen and attended Wellesley College, where she thrived in the physics department. But she didn’t come to terms with her sexual orientation until her 20s, when she found herself in love.
Her girlfriend began visiting her at the lab and became part of her social life. The process was organic.
“I have never had negative experiences because of this,” she says. “My work environment was very supportive.”
“Some people venture into places others consider dangerous or unsavory. They are not foolish or fearless. They read a situation and have some confidence in reading it well enough, so they go there.”
In coming out, she says, she looked around and took stock of her work environment. Her sexuality, she figured, would make little difference to those around her. Her instincts proved to be right.
Despite her confidence and dedication, Mavalvala insists “I am not someone who is, at all, ’in your face,’… I am quite happy to go unnoticed.”
It might be too late for that—she’s become something of a rock star in the science world.
Even in Pakistan—no haven for LGBT people—prime minister Nawaz Sharif praised Mavalvala as a source of inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students.
“The entire nation is proud of her valuable contribution,” said Nawaz.
And so are we.