While some dance on TikTok, she heads for the Nobel Prize at 17

While some dance on TikTok, she heads for the Nobel Prize at 17

At 17, many teenagers are focusing on their loves and TikTok streams; Christine Ye, on the other hand, only has eyes for the cosmos and gravitational waves.

In the United States, the 2022 edition of the Regeneron Science Talent Search student science competition has just ended. It is an extremely prestigious competition that has been won by several future leading Nobel laureates such as the illustrious astrophysicist Kip Thorne. And Christine Ye, this year’s winner seems to be continuing her momentum; at just 17 years old, she has just won the $250,000 promised to the winner for impressive work on gravitational waves.

Even within the framework of this competition, which usually brings together particularly brilliant young people, Ye is an exception. At an age when the majority of her classmates are still tearing their hair out over differential equations, she has put together an impressive study at thebreadth and methodology worthy of a referenced academician.

A mystery that dates back to 2019

There is, moreover, an air of deja vu in these works. They are indeed based on measurements carried out by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), a powerful interferometer which was able to see the light of day thanks to the nobelized work of… Kip Thorne in person, former winner of the competition in 1957.

In 2019, researchers at the helm of LIGO detected a massive flow of gravitational waves. They are space-time disturbances generated by the collision between two extremely massive objects, much like the ripples in the water when a pebble falls into a pond. In this case, it was a black hole and a second unidentified object. When they calculated the mass of this mystery object, a surprise awaited them; based on the intensity of these gravitational waves, scientists determined that the object was about 2.6 times heavier than our sun.

This is an extremely curious observation; indeed, the catalog of astronomers does not really contain any object that could correspond to this mass. It is located about halfway between that of the heaviest neutron stars and the lightest black holes.

Unfortunately, in the absence of new signals, no one has yet managed to precisely determine the identity of the second object. But the work of Ye and his colleague Maya Fishbach has made it possible to offer a coherent interpretation.

In-depth work worthy of professionals

Ye began by delving into the mountain of data collected by LIGO during this event. “I spent a lot of time looking at and simulating pulsars with NANOGrav”, naturally tells this teenager in an interview with Space.com. Its objective: to try to model a scenario producing a gravitational wave comparable to that observed by the LIGO.

After many unsuccessful attempts, Ye hit the jackpot when she had the idea to relaunch her previous simulation, but this time testing the hypothesis of a rapidly rotating neutron star.

This behavior is already well known to astronomers, and this rotation tends to significantly alter the star’s properties, including its mass. But so far, no one has taken this type of simulation as far as Ye. By doing so, she succeeded in demonstrating by simulation that rapidly rotating neutron stars could indeed reach a mass compatible with these observations. “My work shows it’s possible, and it’s a coherent explanation,” Ye says.

When two massive objects collide, they produce space-time disturbances, much like a pebble falling through water. We then speak of gravitational waves. © R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL

A first publication to launch a great career?

This does not mean, however, that the mystery object detected by the LIGO necessarily belongs to this category. To be sure, it would be necessary to be able to measure the speed of rotation of the object in question. Unfortunately, the two objects merged during the collision. It will therefore never again be possible to directly study this deceased celestial body to get to the bottom of it.

But in any case, the scope of Ye’s work goes beyond the simple scope of this observation. Now that his model has proven that neutron stars of this mass were theoretically possible, the objective will be to try to spot one to obtain experimental confirmation. This data can then be integrated into the current models from which physicists work to unravel the mysteries of our universe.

His work has now entered the academic peer-review process; they should be officially released soon. Rather impressive for a teenager of her age; there is no doubt that she will be spoiled for choice when choosing her future university. Can we already speak of a future candidate for the Nobel Prize? He is still much too early to tell; but in any case, with such an early academic start, she seems to have the profile to claim it one day.

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