[cleeng_content id="933584220" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Jefferson High grad is awarded an Einstein Fellowship to study ‘gravitational waves’
Justin Ellis did not grow up imagining he would be an astrophysicist.
“I’m not different than anyone else,” Ellis said. “When I was young, I mostly rode my dirt bike. My parents always encouraged me to do better, and I was lucky enough to have good teachers.”
But earlier this month Ellis – a graduate of Ranson Elementary, Charles Town Junior High, Jefferson High School and Shepherd University – was awarded a prestigious Einstein Fellowship to pursue postdoctoral research at the cutting edge of modern physics. The fellowship is awarded to only a handful of applicants throughout the nation each year.
During the three-year fellowship, which is funded by NASA, Ellis has set for himself a modest task: detecting millimeter-sized wiggles in stars more than 10 quadrillion miles away.
To detect these tiny changes, Ellis will work with astrophysicists at Cornell University using data from West Virginia’s own Green Bank Telescope in Pocahontas County, as well as the Arecibo Observatory – the two largest radio telescopes in the world. His main task will be to write software to pull a tiny clear signal out of a sea of noise.
If he is successful, says a fellow scientist and former teacher, his work could revolutionize modern physics.
“He is truly out on the frontiers of science,” said Jason Best, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Shepherd University. “The work he is doing could be transformative. If he is successful, it will transform physics, transform our basic understanding of the universe.”
Ellis’ goal is to directly observe a mysterious phenomenon predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity called “gravitational waves.”
Gravitational waves are not unlike the ripples produced by dropping a pebble into a pool of water. But instead of a pebble, the waves spread out from immensely heavy bodies spinning in space. And instead of peaks and valleys in the surface of the water, gravitational waves are literal expansions and contractions of space and time.
To observe these gravitational waves, Ellis will look at a special kind of star called a pulsar that ejects bursts of radio waves at very regular intervals, like the ticking of a clock or flashes from a lighthouse.
“These things are extremely stable,” Ellis said. “They are as stable as the best clocks that we know of.”
The gravitational waves Ellis is looking for are produced by a titanic dance thousands of light years away: the collision of two galaxies. Each has at its center enormously dense, heavy bodies called supermassive black holes that weigh hundreds of thousands times more than the sun. As the galaxies approach and then spin around each other, gravitational waves flow outward through space, stretching and compressing it.
“If you can measure the ticks on the pulsar every time it goes around, basically what will happen is that if the space between Earth and the pulsar stretches and compresses, some of those pulses will get there later than you expect and some of them will get there earlier,” Ellis explains. “It’s almost like [the gravitational waves are] changing the distance between Earth and the pulsar.”
“Discovering gravitational waves gives you one more piece of this puzzle,” he says. “There is this complicated framework, and everything we know about the universe is built up from it. And there are these pieces missing that are predicted by those theories, and I think it is really interesting to use real data from these telescopes to confirm or disprove things from these theories.”
These gravitational waves have never been observed directly. When Joseph Hooten Taylor, Jr., a Princeton astrophysicist, produced indirect evidence of their existence, he was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Best says successfully glimpsing and measuring these fundamental hidden forces would be an event of historic proportions.
“The detection of gravitational waves would be one of the most significant findings in the history of science – no exaggeration,” he said. “In many ways, you are looking at the true, fundamental nature of the universe.”
Best, who worked closely with Ellis during his two years at Shepherd, says he was not surprised to hear Ellis had earned the prestigious award.
“I was pleased but not surprised. He is such a high-caliber mind,” Best says. “When people use the phrase best of the best, this is the sort of thing they are referring to.”
Ellis assisted Best in establishing the Shepherd Observatory in 2007, and the two have kept in touch while Ellis finished his bachelor’s at West Virginia University and earned his Doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. Best remembers Ellis as a student with tremendous intellectual gifts and a tireless worker, but those qualities, he said, are shared by many students.
“What distinguishes Justin, to me, is his truly curious mind, the depth to which he wants to be able to understand how the universe works, the depth to which he wishes to explore nature,” Best said. “He will be one of the lights of the next generation of scientists.”
Ellis, for his part, credits Best’s enthusiastic embrace of the mysteries of the vast universe with his decision to pursue a career in astrophysics.
“When I first went into Shepherd, I wasn’t even majoring in science,” Ellis said. “I was interested, but then I took a class with him and he was so charismatic and influential that I decided to switch to science.
“He was an amazing teacher who really took the time to explain things and make sure you understood things.”
Ellis also remembers a former Jefferson High School science teacher, James Flemming, as having a profound effect on him, although he did not realize it at the time.
“I was annoyed at the time because there was a lot of work to do and the class was the hardest class I had ever had,” Ellis said. “I was mad because I wasn’t doing as well as I had done in other classes. It wasn’t until years later that I looked back and realized that I learned more in that class than I did in any of the other classes.”
Ellis’ message to other students considering a career in science is simple: listen to your teachers.
“Listen to what your teachers and professors tell you, because they can really help you out in your career,” he said. “Even though you might not like it at the time, in the long run you will realize that they are really helping you out.”