The University System of Maryland Board of Regents has selected Professor Peter Shawhan of the UMD Department of Physics for the 2018 Regents’ Faculty Award for Excellence in Research, Scholarship or Creative Activity. This award is the Board’s highest honor for exemplary faculty achievement.
Shawhan was cited for his work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which in 2016 reported the first detection of gravitational waves. The detection of these waves—caused by the collision of two massive black holes 1.3 billion years ago—verified Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and generated immense acclaim, culminating in the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish.
Just two weeks after the Nobel announcement, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the European Virgo Collaboration described another major finding: the collision of two neutron stars. A distinctive “chirp” of gravitational waves was first detected by the two LIGO interferometers, with a weaker signal recorded by the Virgo interferometer. About two seconds later, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope logged a burst of gamma rays. These nearly simultaneous signals triggered an alert to scores of observatories on Earth and in space to turn to the direction of the source and collect data over the whole electromagnetic spectrum. They gathered images and information about the neutron star collision that can be studied for years to come. This coordinated approach—multi-messenger astronomy following a gravitational-wave event—was an innovation developed and championed by Shawhan with various collaborators over many years.
Within the LSC, Shawhan is currently the Data Analysis Council Co-Chair and a member of the Executive Committee. For the initial detection of gravitational waves, the LSC and the Virgo collaboration were honored with a 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the 2016 Gruber Prize in Cosmology, the 2017 Bruno Rossi Prize, and the 2017 Princess of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research.
Shawhan received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago, and was appointed a Millikan Prize Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology. He continued at Caltech as a Senior Scientist before accepting a faculty appointment with UMD Physics in 2006. He serves as the Physics Associate Chair for Graduate Education and is a member of the UMD-Goddard Joint Space-Science Institute and its Executive Committee. In addition, he is Chair of the recently-established Division of Gravitational Physics of the American Physical Society. In August 2016, Shawhan received the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship from the UMD Department of Physics.