UTRGV physics team among scientists to share Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

By Cheryl Taylor

BROWNSVILLE & EDINBURG, TEXAS – JUNE 8, 2016 – As part of the team that collaborated on the monumental scientific discovery of gravitational waves, 10 physics professors at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will receive a monetary award from the Breakthrough Prize.

The UTRGV professors and graduate students are among a group of 1,012 contributors to the decades-long quest to confirm a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity.

“A discovery of these proportions requires effort of not just a few, but that of a worldwide collaboration of more than a thousand scientists,” said Dr. Soma Mukherjee, UTRGV physics professor and Chair of the Department of Physics. “I am very glad that several professors and graduate students from our university have been a part of this team and have contributed significantly.”

The National Science Foundation called the Sept. 14, 2015, discovery “an unprecedented new window to the cosmos.” The international collaboration detected gravitational waves produced during the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole.
This collision of two black holes had been predicted but never observed and was recorded by the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors in Louisiana and Washington State.

The Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy at UTRGV has served as an excellent platform to bring together a great team of gravitational wave researchers who have contributed to multiple aspects of the global team effort of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration,” Mukherjee said.

In May this year, the selection committee of the Breakthrough Prize announced it would recognize the scientists and engineers who contributed to the collaboration with a monetary prize of $3 million, to be shared between two groups of laureates: the three founders of LIGO, who will each equally share $1 million; and 1,012 contributors to the experiment, who will equally share $2 million. The LIGO founders are Dr. Ronald W. P. Drever, Dr. Kip S. Thorne and Dr. Rainer Weiss.

As collaborators in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration global research effort, the UTRGV Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy (CGWA) has the largest group of gravitational wave researchers in Texas and one of the largest in the Unites States.

Among the UTRGV CGWA discovery team are:

Dr. Malik Rakhmanov, physics associate professor, and Dr. Volker Quetschke, physics associate professor, who have spent years working at the LIGO detector sites, and Dr. Joseph Romano, physics professor, who developed techniques to detect gravitational waves of cosmological origin.

The algorithm that first detected the event is based on work done by Dr. Soumya Mohanty, physics professor, and Rakhmanov, in collaboration with Professors Sergey Klimenko and Guenakh Mitselmakher from the University of Florida.

Dr. Teviet Creighton, physics associate professor, worked on methods of detection of gravitational waves from rapidly spinning neutron stars. Dr. Mario Diaz, physics professor and CGWA director, and Dr. Matt Benacquista, physics professor and CGWA associate director, made follow-up observations using an optical telescope located in Argentina, immediately after the event was detected.

Mukherjee, UTRGV physics professor, has contributed to several aspects of detector noise characterization and search for gravitational waves from supernovae. Dr. Joey Key, physics assistant professor of research, has worked on analysis of gravitational wave burst sources and also served as LIGO Scientific Collaboration education and community outreach group chair. 

Former UTRGV graduate students Pablo Daveloza and Sean Morris; UT San Antonio/UTRGV cooperative doctoral students Marc Normandin, Robert Stone, Darkhan Tuyenbayev and Guillermo Valdes made contributions in a wide range of activities, including experimental research at LIGO, detector characterization and data analysis.

Dr. Cristina Torres, former assistant research professor, also in the list of recipients, died in 2015.

“The prize to the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration (European laser interferometer for detection of gravitational waves) is a recognition of the enormous effort invested by the scientists over 20 years,” Mukherjee said. “I hope that the work contributed by the UTRGV researchers will inspire young students across the Rio Grande Valley to become interested to join the Department of Physics at UTRGV and participate in exciting gravitational wave research.”


Now in its fifth year, the Breakthrough Prize recognizes the world’s top scientists. Each prize is $3 million, presented in the fields of Life Sciences (up to five per year), Fundamental Physics (up to one per year) and Mathematics (up to one per year). The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner. Selection Committees are composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates.

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Marci Caltabiano Ponce, UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications
Jennifer McGehee Valdez, UTRGV Director of Media and Public Relations