Leibniz Prize for Alessandra Buonanno

The director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam receives the most important research award of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) endowed with €2.5 million.

December 14, 2017

The DFG announced today that Professor Alessandra Buonanno will be honoured with the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz prize for her key role in the first direct observations of gravitational waves. This long-awaited discovery is a historic scientific milestone, and was awarded this year’s Nobel prize in Physics. Alessandra Buonanno is one of the scientists who made the detection possible. Her contributions were crucial to the field by laying the theoretical groundwork that allowed the identification of the gravitational-wave signals and their correct interpretation. The award ceremony will take place on March 19, 2018 in Berlin.

“I am thrilled and honoured that my research receives such a great recognition,” says Buonanno. “My team and I have been working for years to develop accurate waveform models that could be used to observe and interpret gravitational-wave signals from binary systems composed of black holes and neutron stars. The last two years, since the first direct detection of gravitational waves with the Advanced LIGO detectors in the fall of 2015, have been extremely exciting and insightful. The very recent observation of gravitational-wave emission and its multi-messenger signatures from a binary neutron star, has already proven the vast impact that the new field of gravitational-wave astronomy can have in astrophysics, fundamental physics, and cosmology.”

Highly accurate waveform models for the identification and interpretation of gravitational-wave signals

Already in 1999, Buonanno, together with Professor Thibault Damour, invented the so-called effective-one-body (EOB) approach to the two-body problem in General Relativity. In this formalism the two-body dynamics is reduced to the dynamics of a test-body moving in the spacetime of an effective black hole. While still highly complex, this novel approach allows for a much more efficient computation of the dynamics and waveforms, and for the inclusion of perturbative and nonperturbative effects, and led to the first analytic prediction of the full gravitational waveform from a binary black-hole coalescence.

The detection and interpretation of very weak signals in the noisy data stream is analogous to the problem of recognizing voices in an environment with very high background noise. For this purpose, LIGO and Virgo scientists use several hundred thousand filters (or templates) and match them against the detector output to find signals. Millions of templates are then employed in follow-up analyses to extract astrophysical and fundamental physics information. Templates need to be generated fastly and very accurately, so that data can be analysed in real-time. Buonanno and her team developed highly accurate and efficient template banks for the searches of binary black holes. On one side, this work relies on sophisticated studies to include other physical effects in the waveform models, and extends the effective-one-body  theory to black holes with spins, whose presence makes the two-body dynamics and gravitational waveforms even more complicated. On the other side, they improved and completed the effective-one-body formalism by including nonperturbative and nonlinear information close to merger, employing numerical-relativity simulations, eventually extending the templates to the entire parameter space.

The effective-one-body waveform models for binary black holes with spins, which were developed by Buonanno’s group at the University of Maryland and then finalized in 2014 in her division at the Max Planck Institute, were implemented and employed in the continuing search for binary coalescences in Advanced LIGO data. It is this search that observed the first black-hole merger. The same waveform models were also used to infer the astrophysical parameters (masses and spins) of the source, as well as its orientation and distance from Earth, together with the mass and spin of the black hole produced by the merger. The waveform models were also employed to test predictions from the theory of General Relativity in the highly dynamical and strong-field regime.

Alessandra Buonanno is Director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam and College Park Professor at the University of Maryland. She earned her PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Pisa in Italy. After a brief period spent at the theory division of CERN, she held postdoctoral positions at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France and at the California Institute of Technology in the USA. She was a staff researcher at the Institut d'Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) and Laboratoire Astroparticule et Cosmologie (APC) in Paris with the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) before joining the University of Maryland as physics professor. While at the University of Maryland, Buonanno has been a Fellow of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. She was a William and Flora Hewlett Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She is a Fellow of the International Society on General Relativity and Gravitation, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Since 2014, Buonanno holds a distinguished visiting research chair at the Perimeter Institute in Canada.

Since 2014, Buonanno leads the department of “Astrophysical and Cosmological Relativity” at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam. In 2016 she was awarded the Lower Saxony State Award together with her Hannover colleagues Professor Bruce Allen and Professor Karsten Danzmann. As a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, she received numerous other awards: the 2016 Gruber Prize and the Special Breakthrough Prize, as well as the 2017 Princess of Asturias Prize, the Bruno Rossi Prize of the American Astronomical Society, and the Achievement Award of the Royal Astronomical Society. Since 2017, Buonanno has been honorary professor at the University of Potsdam and the Humboldt University in Berlin.

The Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize is the most important research prize in Germany. It has been awarded by the DFG annually since 1986. Each year about ten recipients are selected, each with prize money of up to €2.5 million. The awardees can use these funds for their research work for up to seven years. The awards ceremony for the Leibniz Prizes will be held on March 19, 2018 in Berlin.

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