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The Search for Gravitational Waves

Trinity University physics professor Dennis Ugolini is part of prestigious collaboration

By Susie P. Gonzalez

Linda Salvucci

Dennis Ugolini , professor of physics

March 2011 –  All it took was a seventh-grade field trip to a particle accelerator facility 10 miles from his family’s home in Illinois to spark a love for physics in Trinity professor Dennis Ugolini.

“After that science class trip, the Fermilab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory) became my second home,” said Ugolini, associate professor of physics and astronomy.   

While a physics undergraduate at California Institute of Technology, a prototype instrument under construction caught his eye. Known as an interferometer because it interferes two beams of light, the equipment was a small-scale version of two other installations that were completed in 1999.   

The same year, Ugolini earned his doctorate in physics at Stanford University, and made a return visit to Caltech. He learned the prototype interferometer was lacking a scientist to operate it and move its development forward. “I’ll do it,” he recalls saying, since he already was thinking about teaching at a liberal arts school such as Trinity and the experience of working on the prototype could prove valuable. Thus, his science career began to take shape, moving away from particle accelerator studies to conducting research with an instrument that examines how light bends and travels through space, among other topics.

Now, Ugolini is one of 440 collaborators on a mission to perfect a new field of science known as gravitational wave astronomy. The collaborators actively work on two installations that operate as a single observatory, LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory), which is located in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. Because of his participation, Trinity is now a member of the LIGO collaborative.

He is bringing a traveling exhibit to campus in March that will include a smaller interferometer (the Louisiana instrument is five miles long) that will convert light to sound so that visitors can “hear” it as the beams oscillate in the environment of a vacuum. Also included is a video game called Black Hole Hunter, which Ugolini said illustrates the curvature of space as it emits a “chirp” that kids love when they don earphones and use a track ball to learn about physics while playing a game.

Another feature will include a rubber sheet with balls that help demonstrate curved space and the concept that straight lines are not straight in curved space, Ugolini said.

The exhibit will be displayed at Trinity’s Coates Library from March 7 until the end of the month. Visitors are welcome during library hours.   

For his part of the LIGO project, Ugolini is focusing on removing charge from mirrors in the instrument, which is concurrently evolving into an advanced phase that scientists hope to roll out in 2014. One or two Trinity students join him in his work every year.  

In time, researchers in the LIGO collaborative hope their discoveries will enable them to conduct astronomy research in new ways. “When you have a new way to look at the universe, you find new information, you might find different objects,” Ugolini said. “You can look at black holes, neutron stars, supernovae, and you might examine a whole new class of objects.”

Courses Taught

  • Quantum Mechanics I and II (upper division physics courses)
  • Introduction to Mechanics
  • Introduction to Electricity, Magnetism, and Waves
  • Science vs. Pseudoscience (first-year seminar)


  • D. Ugolini, M. Girard, G.M. Harry, and V.P. Mitrofanov.  “Discharging fused silica test masses with ultraviolet light.”  Phys. Lett. A372, 5741-5744 (2008).

  • D. Ugolini, R. Amin, J. Hough, I. Martin, V. Mitrofanov, S. Reid, S. Rowan, K-X. Sun.  “Charging Issues in LIGO.”  Proceedings of the 30th International Cosmic Ray Conference, Merida, Mexico, July 2007.

  • D. Ugolini, R. McKinney, G.M. Harry.  “Developing an Optical Chopper-Modulated Capacitive Probe for Measuring Surface Charge.”  Review of Scientific Instruments 78, 046102 (2007).


© 2011 Trinity University

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