Pakistan-born scientist played part in discovery of gravitational waves

Published: February 13, 2016
Dr Nergis Mavalvala. PHOTO COURTESY: John D & Catherine T, MacArthur Foundation

Dr Nergis Mavalvala. PHOTO COURTESY: John D & Catherine T, MacArthur Foundation

Pakistani-born astrophysicist Dr Nergis Mavalvala was among the team of eagled-eyed scientists who, for the first time, observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves.

The detection – announced only on Thursday – confirms a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window onto the cosmos.

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Professor Mavalvala worked with researchers at the US-based underground detectors Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) Laboratory to build sophisticated  sensors to detect gravitational ripples created from the collision of two black holes some 1.3 billion years ago and had been hurtling through space to reach Earth on September 14, 2015.

Dr Mavalvala, 47, was born to a Parsi family in Karachi where she did her primary schooling.

She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary before going to the US as a teenager where she graduated with a BA in physics and astronomy from the Wellesley College in 1990.

During her graduation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) she started working on gravitational waves – which would lead her to one of the biggest discoveries of the century.  But the tale was not so simple.

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“I started graduate school working in cosmic microwave background, which is another area of astrophysics,” she told the Kavli Foundation in 2010 after receiving the coveted McArthur Fellowship.

“The group I was working in was moving to another university, and so I was kind of shopping around and bumped into Rai Weiss.”

Weiss and Robert Forward had in the early 1970s proposed designs based on which LIGO was formed.

Dr Nergis Mavalvala. PHOTO COURTESY: John D & Catherine T, MacArthur Foundation

Since meeting Weiss in 1991, Dr Mavalvala went deeper into research on gravitational waves. By the time she received her PhD in 1997, she was already working on building LIGO.

She focused on instrument development for LIGO during her post-doctoral work at California Institute of Technology (CalTech) before joining LIGO as a staff scientist in 2000. She also joined MIT’s physics department as an assistant professor in 2002, rising to become the department’s associate head in February 2015.

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In essence, her work on gravitational waves has spanned for over 20 years leading up to the discovery.

“The big picture mission drives you. When you work in the lab, [it’s like] you bang your head against the wall for weeks at a time, working on a state-of-the-art circuit, for example,” Mavalvala told MIT’s site in 2014. “Yet this is what enables scientific discovery, when the smaller to bigger pieces of experiments succeed, when the whole thing does what it is supposed to, and then you hope nature gives you the event you’ve been waiting for.”

Published in The Express Tribune, February 13th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (50)

  • sunny
    Feb 13, 2016 - 8:19AM

    Pakistan are increasing their Footprint on the world.Recommend

  • Rational
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:00AM

    Dr Nergis Mavalvala has been quite vocal about encouraging gay scientists and about how she has overcome challenges in her career as an openly lesbian professional who also has a young child…!! thank god she has gone to US from the land of so called pure…!! or else in the land of Pure she would have been punished sever…!!Recommend

  • G Indian
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:13AM

    Congratualations. wishing more positive stories like this. Recommend

  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:15AM

    Makes a healthy change. Normally, Pakistan-born people come in the international news for wrong reasons.

    Heartiest congratulations to Dr Nergis Mavalvala on her accomplishment and a big thank you for bringing Pakistan a moment of pride.


  • Sodomite
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:36AM

    People like Nergis and Malala should have made up what Pakistan ought to stand for in this world. Instead our notoriety lies in corruption of Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and their clansmen and clanswomen. What a wonderful nation Pakistan could have been. Recommend

  • zs
    Feb 13, 2016 - 10:04AM

    Amazing profile. More about Dr Nargis in this article:

  • k k khan
    Feb 13, 2016 - 10:14AM

    Someone make Miss Kher see the “soft image” of PakistanRecommend

  • Feb 13, 2016 - 10:58AM

    Simply GREAT!!!! Amazing feat for Pakistan women. Really feeling Happy and Proud same time.Recommend

  • zain
    Feb 13, 2016 - 12:03PM

    Good News but the fact is she is now a Pakistani American and she will most probably never come back to Pakistan Recommend

  • Slamdunk
    Feb 13, 2016 - 12:50PM

    @Rational, Imagine if she was in Delhi and catching the bus home from the cinema before 10pm?


  • cl
    Feb 13, 2016 - 12:55PM

    Its all about starting point which is not same for everyone. i wish an urdu medium student could bring these breakthroughs. working in sophisticated labs surely bring fruits in longer runs. she is observing nature but paradoxically her personal life is against the nature. practicing such a thing which is forbidden in islam christanity judaism hinduism. human complex fabric is itself miracle of the noble nature. Recommend

  • Vectra
    Feb 13, 2016 - 1:51PM

    Congrats, In India 37 Indians and 1 Institution i.e Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) contributed to this discovery of Gravitational Waves.

    Around 30 Indians were part of a 1,000-strong team of researchers from 15 countries led by scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that made the discovery using detectors at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

    “I am so grateful for the major contributions, by Indian scientists working in India and abroad, that helped make this discovery and future discoveries possible,” said Kip Thorne, a Caltech theoretical physicist and co-founder of the LIGO project, in a statement.

    Indian data analysts developed and implemented techniques to find gravitational-wave signals amid noise and the country’s theorists computed the shapes of the signals, he added.Recommend

  • Feb 13, 2016 - 2:15PM

    I am very proud of Nergis Mavalvala as being a Karachiite and a Pakistani. Karachi has always produced the extraordinary geniuses and people whom, as a Pakistani we can proud of.
    Best of luck in future, I wish Nargis more and more successes in future, good health and prosperity.Recommend

  • Trollistan
    Feb 13, 2016 - 4:16PM

    Its not LIGO its LEGO… and children have been playing with that technology for decades!!!Recommend

  • Milind
    Feb 13, 2016 - 4:26PM

    Now Pakistanis are jumping up & down to claim her as their own… God knows had she been in Pakistan, by now she would have been branded as a heretic and would have met the same fate as Abdus Salam..Recommend

  • Feb 13, 2016 - 5:05PM

    Nothing exits without an opposite available. Both 11 Gravitational Constants (Combination of Darkness and light and in wave form) and 12 Set Automatic ORDERS (Unseen but in the form of light) always run parallel to each other to keep the Creation intact, while keeping it in equilibrium state. Although, we able to know the Gravity through experiencing it; light is elusive (The more we dig to find it, the more deeper it becomes.).While, the moment Gravity is disturbed through whatever means; the entire objects within the Universe shall disintegrate and shall reborn again; if the ORDER is disturbed; all shall merged to zero but much of uncertainty of rebirth. This is the basic of Creation. As and when the Gravity is interweaved with each other; there form the BLACK HOLE to humble the one that crosses its limit. Recommend

  • Feb 13, 2016 - 5:11PM

    Proud to be Pakistani !Recommend

  • True Karachiwala
    Feb 13, 2016 - 5:14PM

    Another Karachiite !!!! I am very happy.Recommend

  • Ayesha
    Feb 13, 2016 - 5:38PM

    I salute the Pakistan’s smallest Parsi community whose member, Ms, Mavawala has made us feel very proud. Parsi have made enormous contribution for our country, right from 1947. Thank YouRecommend

  • cautious
    Feb 13, 2016 - 7:46PM

    Put the right person in the right spot and their potential can be achieved – in the USA her sex, religion and sexual orientation weren’t factors holding her back.Recommend

  • Proud
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:23PM

    Look at indian comments!!!lol, the moral police of the world Recommend

  • Qamer uddin
    Feb 13, 2016 - 9:30PM

    Well done, Dr Nergis Mavalvala. A friend of mine Imran khan who is the second parkistani that has contributed to this discovery, his name should also be mentioned here. Recommend

  • Babbarsher Khan
    Feb 13, 2016 - 10:01PM

    We had difficulty in accepting Dr. Salam, hope things will change for better and all the fundus who have hijacked our national agenda, identity and any meaningful discourse on any issues will be confined to the four walls of their madrassas forever and let our spirit discover the world and the universe like rest of the mankind. Recommend

  • John B
    Feb 14, 2016 - 5:05AM

    Take a break everyone. It is the US education and the university and her tenacity contributed her achievement and Pak contributed nothing for her success. Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Feb 14, 2016 - 7:04AM

    @John B:
    Where was she born ?Recommend

  • JSM
    Feb 14, 2016 - 7:11AM

    Which Indian comment is to be looked at?
    Look at Rational’s comment.Recommend

  • JSM
    Feb 14, 2016 - 7:12AM

    Is sh allowed to come and work in Pakistan?Recommend

  • usman778
    Feb 14, 2016 - 7:46AM

    The shear level of animosity and the depth of Indian jealousy as conveyed by the messages here is simply amazing. I cannot IMAGINE going to an Indian newspaper to belittle any Indian accomplishment. Recommend

  • Abu Mahmud
    Feb 14, 2016 - 9:31AM

    This is just ridiculous. The only way this would have been achievement is if GoP had supported her research. Otherwise this whole thing is a delusion.Recommend

  • Hussam
    Feb 14, 2016 - 9:38AM

    I don’t know why we’re trying to stamp “Pakistani” all over it. It is her personal achievement. Until now, nobody had even heard of her or cared about it so stop trying to act like you suddenly care. Recommend

  • wasim
    Feb 14, 2016 - 10:13AM

    OMG… Indians are so concerned about Pakistan… all the time surfing in our sites… I never visited any Indian site in my life.Recommend

  • IndianDude
    Feb 14, 2016 - 10:27AM

    Congratulation. Many other Pakistanis, who are not scientist, have also made giant contributions towards discovery of gravitational waves. Many Pakistanis drive scientists to their labs on time, making contributions every day towards science.Recommend

  • Saleem
    Feb 14, 2016 - 12:40PM

    @Hussam , why is it okay with you when they stamp ‘Pakistani’ over an incident where Pakistani-American is involved in negative event ? She did this research in U.S. and obviously the biggest credit goes to that country. However, she was able to get basic education and an upbringing in Pakistan that helped her get into prestigious universities and then world stage. It is indeed a proud moment for me and every Pakistani that she played a part in a team that brought a breakthrough results.Recommend

  • FF
    Feb 14, 2016 - 1:20PM

    Now that Karachi Parsis have done Pakistan yet another favor, how about taking some legal notice of the encroachment and theft of our real estate in the Saddar Parsi Colony or is that too much to ask? We are being evicted from our own homes by thugs and no one has the courage to do anything about it.Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 14, 2016 - 3:32PM

    You forgot another name ‘Altaf Hussain’. Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 14, 2016 - 3:33PM

    Why are you telling us about Indian achievement on Pakistani website to non-Indians? Stop promoting yourself. Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 14, 2016 - 3:35PM

    What happened to those Indian scientists who returned their awards to Indian Government? Recommend

  • Observer
    Feb 14, 2016 - 3:41PM

    Did you know about Malala Yousafzai before an attack on her? When she received a peace Nobel Prize, was it her personal pride? Why did you post a comment if you did not care about this at all? Recommend

  • Asmatullah
    Feb 14, 2016 - 8:33PM

    People like Dr.Nergis Mavalvala,Malala Yousafzai,Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy are making Pakistan proud on international level.But what happened to Pakistani men? I guess they are too busy in earning bribery and making girlfriends.Recommend

  • raider
    Feb 14, 2016 - 11:22PM

    @John B:
    burnol for youRecommend

  • Naresh
    Feb 15, 2016 - 3:18AM

    Dr Nergis Mavalvala seems to be a Zoroastrian – Parsi – and I am sure they have not suffered any Religious Prosecution in Pakistan.

  • Ali Zaid
    Feb 15, 2016 - 6:07AM

    @ Sodomite
    Please dont take Malala’s name with geniuses like Dr. Nergis. These people have spend their lives working hard to achieve something and didn’t get famous for getting a fake bullet!Recommend

  • Shah
    Feb 15, 2016 - 1:16PM

    No They Do Not Suffer Anything Religious Persecution.Unlike Indian Muslims Who Cannot Buy A Flat In Their Name These Parsis Own Prime Real Estate Under Avari Towers And Hotels.
    I Know Parsis and Christians Who Own Choicest Homes In DHA and BahriaRecommend

  • Milind
    Feb 15, 2016 - 3:08PM

    @Observer – “What happened to those Indian scientists who returned their awards to Indian Government? ”

    To my knowledge none were real-real scientists.. Most of them had larger-than-life egos, curried favour and awards from the earlier dispensation..and indulged in politicking to smear the current Govt.Recommend

  • ajeet
    Feb 15, 2016 - 5:56PM

    They might have been worried about safety?Recommend

  • Wizarat
    Feb 15, 2016 - 6:52PM

    I wish Pakistan could also own other geniuses who have worked tirelessly in education and politics, couple of names come to mind, one the Nobel laureate in Physics Prof Abdus Salaam, the First Muslim too. and Aziz Ahmed, of course Malala Yousaf Zai.Recommend

  • Waheeda
    Feb 16, 2016 - 9:19AM

    Mavalva played a part, yes. A itsy bitsy part. One among 1004 authors of the paper. Nearly every nation has multiple authors. Our neighbor who we don’t so like has 35 contributing authors. Seriously as a responsible paper, stop distorting the news. The discovery belongs to the four American scientists who lead the effort such prof Thorne.Recommend

  • Dr Masood Ahmad Shakir
    Feb 16, 2016 - 9:03PM

    Heartiest congratulations to Dr Nergis Mavalvala on her marvelous success and a big thank you for bringing Pakistan a moment of pride. Alas we had always won negative images over the word. Nargis Mavalvala came as a fresh air.Recommend

  • Feb 16, 2016 - 9:45PM

    A Pakistani be among the team that receives a Nobel prize for the detection of gravitational waves? Only time will tell. Till then, it’s another feather in the cap for Pakistan and Dr. Nergis Mavalvala, to whom we wish our most heartfelt congratulations. Keep making our country proud!Recommend

  • azmat
    Feb 17, 2016 - 12:43AM

    God Bless you,keep it upRecommend

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