PASADENA, Calif.—Jay Marx, an experimental particle physicist who in recent decades has been involved in several of the highest-profile physics projects in the country, has been named executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). His appointment has been approved by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the two academic institutions in charge of the project, and the National Science Foundation, which provides funding.
Marx will succeed Barry Barish, the Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Caltech, who has led the LIGO project through its construction and into its first major science runs. Barish also made his mark on the international physics community in groundbreaking experimental particle projects, and says he will now devote most of his energies to directing the global design effort for the proposed International Linear Collider, although he will continue to be involved in LIGO research.
"I am extremely pleased to be joining LIGO at this exciting time," Marx said. "LIGO is a fantastic example of the human drive for new knowledge through using our human capabilities as toolmakers to probe the universe around us."
Originally proposed decades ago as a means of detecting an elusive phenomenon known as gravitational waves, the observatory comprises extremely sensitive detectors in central Washington state and southern Louisiana. Each facility is built around a giant L-shaped five-mile-long evacuated tube containing laser beams monitoring sets of precision mirrors. If Einstein's 1916 prediction is correct, the relative distance of the mirrors will change very slightly when a gravitational wave passes.
LIGO became fully operational in 2005 as a means of serving both the physics and astronomy communities—the former in seeking to detect cosmic gravitational waves for the first time to provide greater insight into the still-elusive nature of gravity, and the latter in utilizing gravitational waves to understand exotic astrophysical phenomena such as supernovas and merging neutron-star and black-hole pairs.
LIGO was designed and is operated by Caltech and MIT, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Research is carried out by the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, a group of 500 scientists at universities around the United States and in eight other countries.
Marx is a native of New York and is known in the world of physics primarily for leadership in the successful design and construction of the Solenoidal Tracker at Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (STAR) detector at Brookhaven National Laboratory, the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the PEP-4 detector at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. He has been a senior physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1981, and has been involved in numerous particle- and nuclear-physics projects.
Before joining the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he was a member of the physics faculty at Yale University.
According to Marx, he is already looking ahead to LIGO's first direct observation of gravitational waves and to the observatory's continued growth as a useful tool in the quest for new knowledge about the fundamental forces of nature and the cosmos.
"LIGO has recently made enormous strides," he said. "After several years of hard work, the team has brought the instruments at the two sites to their predicted design sensitivity. LIGO is now well positioned for the future, with the first long data run at full sensitivity currently underway.
"This data will produce important scientific results and teach us more about how to further enhance the performance of the initial LIGO. And there is hope that the first direct observation of gravitational waves could happen during this run if nature is kind to us."
The next major construction milestone for LIGO will be the beginning of the Advanced LIGO Project, which is expected to start in 2008. The current configuration of LIGO is sensitive enough to detect a change in the lengths of the 2.5-mile arms by a distance one-thousandth the size of a proton. But Advanced LIGO, which will utilize the infrastructure of LIGO, will be 10 times more sensitive.
The increased sensitivity will be important because it will allow scientists to detect cataclysmic events such as black-hole and neutron-star collisions at 10-times-greater distances. And because LIGO can "see" in all directions, Advanced LIGO will be 1,000 times more likely to detect gravitational waves and will make important contributions to astronomy and physics.