2016 Hoyle Medal and prize of the Institute of Physics

Professor Sheila Rowan, University of Glasgow, for having devised and implemented a range of refinements in precision laser interferometers, pioneering aspects of the technology of gravitational wave observatories.

Picture of Sheila Rowan

Professor Sheila Rowan is the director of the University of Glasgow’s Institute for Gravitational Research, which led the UK team that created and delivered mirror suspensions for the Advanced LIGO gravitational wave observatory – the observatory that made the discovery of gravitational waves in 2015.

The discovery not only confirms a prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity but potentially opens up a completely new window into the universe.

Interferometric gravitational-wave detectors operate by using laser-interferometry to sense the movements of mirrors at the ends of perpendicular arms where motions are induced by the effects of gravitational signals produced by astrophysical events. The inherent weakness of the gravitational force means that by the time signals from distant events reach the Earth, their effect on such mirrors is movement of 10-18m or less.

This is a daunting measurement challenge, which has required decades of development. Professor Rowan has made major contributions to the GEO 600 detector in Germany and her design features were incorporated into the Advanced LIGO gravitational wave detector in the US, which made the first ever detection of gravitational waves. Related developments will be installed in its French-Italian counterpart, Advanced Virgo.

Rowan is also leading research into cryogenically cooled silicon as a test mass and suspension material, which she was the first to realise was important in dealing with thermo-elastic thermal noise. This has stimulated activity in gravitational-wave research groups globally, with Rowan’s group in Glasgow again pioneering developments at the forefront of low-noise suspension design, in parallel with studies of the optical and mechanical properties of novel mirror coatings for use on cryogenic silicon mirrors.

Rowan was elected chair of the Gravitational Waves International Committee in 2015, and appointed as chief scientific adviser for Scotland in June 2016. She is a fellow of the IOP and of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the American Physical Society. She was awarded a Leverhulme Prize for Astronomy and Astrophysics in 2005 and a Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award in 2010, and was made an MBE in 2011.