Cosmic Technician

Corey Gray helps operate an observatory that’s revolutionizing astronomy

COURTESY OF COREY GRAY

ON THE JOB: Corey Gray among laser equipment at the LIGO detector in Hanford, Washington

Every so often, silent ripples from space pass through Earth. These gravitational waves occur when massive objects, like dying stars, collide. Such cosmic crashes shake and distort the very fabric of space and time. The resulting waves can travel long distances—all the way to our planet. Scientists had long hypothesized that these mysterious ripples existed. But it wasn’t until 2015 that they were actually able to sense them—with the help of two giant detectors.

Corey Gray helped build one of those detectors, in Hanford, Washington. A twin detector is located in Livingston, Louisiana. Together, they make up the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Gray is now a detector operator at LIGO.

ILLUSTRATION BY ROBIN DIENEL, COURTESY OF THE CARNEGIE INSTITUTION FOR SCIENCE

CRASH!: An illustration of a collision between two dying stars

Researchers from around the world worked on the monumental discovery of gravitational waves. They translated the findings from LIGO into languages such as Russian, French, and Spanish. That gave Gray an idea. He’s a member of the Siksika Nation, also known as Blackfoot—a Native American tribe in North America. Gray recruited his mother, Sharon Yellowfly, to translate LIGO’s research into the Indigenous language of Blackfoot. Science World spoke with Gray about searching for gravitational waves and sharing discoveries in his tribe’s native tongue.

How does LIGO work?

LIGO’s detectors are the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built. Both consist of two arms, each 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, that form a giant “L.” Concentrated light beams produced by lasers travel down the arms and reflect off mirrors back to a sensor. The sensor can detect the slightest change in the beams caused by a passing gravitational wave (see LIGO at Work). Gravitational waves come from far away, so the ripples are tiny by the time they reach us. The observatories need to be extremely big and precise to detect them.

Why are scientists interested in gravitational waves?

Almost everything in astronomy is based on observing electromagnetic waves, like visible light, radio waves, and X-rays. But these waves can be blocked by objects and matter in space, or by clouds in Earth’s atmosphere.

COURTESY OF COREY GRAY

BIG DETECTOR: Gray stands in front of one of LIGO’s 2.5-mile-long arms.

Gravitational waves are different. They ripple through space itself and pass right through everything—even our planet. These waves provide a completely different way of observing the universe and astronomical events within it. This new tool will allow us to make fascinating discoveries. Right now, it’s hard to predict what those discoveries might be because this field is still in its infancy. It’s an exciting time!

“These waves provide a different way of observing the universe.”
—Corey Gray

What’s involved in your job as an operator at LIGO?

LIGO was my first job after I completed my college degrees in physics and math. I joined a team that built shock-absorbing platforms to reduce ground vibrations that could affect LIGO’s ability to detect gravitational waves.

Now I help keep the detectors running. Operators work in shifts around the clock in the control room, making sure the detector is working correctly and collecting data. When anything goes wrong, operators are the first people who address and fix the problem.

What inspired you to collaborate with your mom to translate LIGO’s findings into Blackfoot?

LIGO’s first detection of gravitational waves was a historic moment. We wanted to share the news with the world. I thought it was a great opportunity to highlight an Indigenous language, so we asked my mom to translate the press release into Blackfoot.

COURTESY OF COREY GRAY

FAMILY TEAMWORK: Gray’s mother, Sharon Yellowfly, translates physics discoveries into Blackfoot.

She had been working for many years to create a dictionary for Blackfoot, which has become an endangered language. Few people still speak it today. That’s because decades ago, Indigenous children across Canada and the U.S. were forced to leave their families and attend boarding schools. They were forbidden to speak their native languages and had to speak English instead. Over time, a lot of knowledge of the language was lost.

My mom has now done about 10 more translations for LIGO. We’re not aware of any original scientific documents that have previously been translated into an Indigenous language, so her work may be the first of its kind. It’s something I’m very proud of.

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