International centre for gravitational physics in Hannover

Founding ceremony on 17 May 2002

May 17, 2002

The challenges of top international research often require quick decisions in politics and administration. In the case of gravitational physics, this has turned out to be the case: Experimental detection and analysis of gravitational waves is now one of the greatest challenges of modern physics. Four gravitational-wave detectors are currently in operation worldwide. They co-operate with each other, but are also competing - because of the high level of probability that direct detection of gravitational waves will lead to a Nobel Prize. The German-British project GEO600 has now been decisively strengthened by the establishment of the International Centre for Gravitational Physics in Hannover.

The establishment of the centre was made possible in a relatively short time by a trusting and effective collaboration between science, politics and administration. Higher education institutions and ministries worked hand in hand. Within a short period of time parallel procedures were underway, decisions were made and financing was coordinated. The research projects convinced all involved bodies. Thomas Oppermann, Lower Saxony Minister for Science and Culture: “The foundation of the Centre for Gravitational Physics is a great opportunity for Hannover’s role as a city of science. This is why, despite the tense budgetary situation, that I quickly decided to provide € 12.5 million for the renovation. This is also the result of the especially trusting and uncomplicated collaboration that takes place between the Max Planck Society and the federal state of Lower Saxony.” The following structure was developed for the Centre for Gravitational Physics by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the Ministry of Science and Culture of Lower Saxony (MWK), the Max Planck Society and the University of Hannover.

The Centre for Gravitational Physics is operated in close cooperation between the Max Planck Society, the Laser Centre and the University of Hannover and is equipped with two experimental departments. The Max Planck Society and the University of Hannover are each contributing a department as part of the cooperation. Prof. Karsten Danzmann, who has held the Chair of Atomic and Molecular Physics at the higher education institution since 1993, will lead the department “Laser Interferometry and Gravitational Wave Astronomy.” Just who will occupy the second position as director is currently under negotiation. This thereby ensures a close link between international world class research and university education. “A cooperation like this is a research focus that will have the effect of a beacon in the landscape of higher education,” according to Prof. Dr. Ludwig Schätzl, President of the University of Hannover.

Organizationally, the two experimental departments are integrated into the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in the Golm district of Potsdam. After expansion is completed, 89 employees will be working at the Centre for Gravitational Physics. There will be 39 permanent positions, half of which will be supported by the Max Planck Society and half by the University of Hannover. 50 additional positions will be financed from third-party funding.

The two Hannover Departments of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics will move into vacant areas of the university. The state of Lower Saxony will pay the renovation costs, in return the Max Planck Society will pay pro rata rent. The researchers will be able to move into the new premises in the middle of 2003.

Prof. Dr. Hermann Nicolai, Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics: “With the rapid and uncomplicated founding of the Centre for Gravitational Physics, we can demonstrate internationally that the German research environment is able to respond to current challenges. Gravitational research in Germany has been made stronger, for which we are grateful to all concerned. The newly created job opportunities will most certainly lead to outstanding research results.”

GEO600: A laser ear for the concert of the cosmos

GEO600 is a completely new type of telescope. Up to now, attempts have been made to discover the secrets of the universe, with light and radio astronomy. However, 95% of the universe is hidden from observation, because it is obscured by dark clouds or consists of non-luminous matter - they are not permeable to either light or radio waves. Gravitational waves, on the other hand, penetrate such clouds without hindrance. They will therefore be able to provide accurate information on the distribution of neutron stars and black holes in the universe, as well as the detailed unfolding of cosmic catastrophes such as the explosion of a star (supernova) or the collapse or merging of two stars. Because the frequencies of gravitational waves that can be measured on the earth lie within listening range, physicists and mathematicians will hopefully soon make the rumbling and whistling of the universe audible.

The gravitational wave detector GEO600 does not have a spectacular appearance. It consists of two 600-metre-long pipes that have been buried in the ground and plain construction site trailers. However, they contain the heart of GEO600 - a state-of-the-art laser technology.

Gravitational wave research in Germany

Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves more than eighty years ago, but it is only today that the necessary technology is available to demonstrate these small ripples of space and time and to use them to observe the dark side of the universe.

Since the pioneering period of experimental gravitational wave research in the 1970s, the Max Planck Society has also held an international position in this field. Prior to the acquisition of the Albert Einstein Institute, the research area was located at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching. This institute, together with the University of Hanover, set up an experimental working place in the Lower Saxony state capital in 1994.

The gravitational wave detector GEO600 is developed and built in Hanover under the direction of Prof. Karsten Danzmann in close cooperation with the British universities in Glasgow and Cardiff. The start of the acquisition of meaningful data is expected by the end of 2002.

The parent institute of the new sub-institute in Hannover, the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in the Golm district of Potsdam, was founded in 1995. Its scientists, in three departments, are primarily devoted to the further mathematical development of the general theory of relativity, astrophysical relativity theory, as well as quantum gravitation.

In addition, the institute coordinates an EU network on the theoretical principles of gravitational wave astronomy and is a partner in four other EU networks on quantum gravitation, string theory, GRID computing and mathematics on the Web.

Karsten Danzmann

Since 1990, Danzmann has led the gravitational wave group at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching. As the responsible scientist for GEO600 – the project is being carried on in collaboration with British universities in Glasgow and Cardiff - since 1994 he has been successfully coordinating the development and construction of the earth-bound gravitational wave detector. In addition, he has been the lead investigator of the LISA gravitational wave experiment in space (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) for about seven years, a joint project between the ESA and the US space agency NASA to be launched in 2011. Karsten Danzmann heads the European side of this endeavour. 

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