Gravitational waves and colliding black holes as a spectator sport at OLLI with Matthew Strassler


Renowned theoretical physicist Matthew Strassler will give two illustrated lectures on gravitational waves, one of the most exciting scientific advances of our time, Monday, June 20, 2016 and Monday, June 27 at Berkshire Community College. The lectures are presented by OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, and are free and open to the public. They will be held at 1:30pm in the K-111 lecture hall in the Koussevitsky Arts Center.

Professor Strassler’s first lecture, on June 20th will be on the topic of why scientists expected gravitational waves, and the history and interplay of gravity and electromagnetism over the past few centuries. His second lecture, on June 27th, will focus on how gravitational waves were discovered, with special attention to how the LIGO experiment works and the implications of its discoveries so far. No math or science background will be assumed.

Professor Strassler maintains a website and blog ( where he writes about science, noting, “I believe deeply that science is one of the world’s great spectator sports, and should be a source of joy and excitement for the public, especially for kids and for kids at heart.” He states, “My goal is to make the major challenges and discoveries and disappointments in the field understandable to everyone, and to reflect on the process of science and its roles in history and in modern society.”

Gravitational waves are ‘ripples’ in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the Universe. Albert Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves in 1916 in his general theory of relativity. Einstein’s mathematics showed that massive accelerating objects (such as neutron stars or black holes orbiting each other) would disrupt space-time in such a way that ‘waves’ of distorted space would radiate from the source (like the movement of waves away from a stone thrown into a pond). Furthermore, these ripples would travel at the speed of light through the Universe, carrying with them information about their cataclysmic origins, as well as invaluable clues to the nature of gravity itself.

The strongest gravitational waves are produced by catastrophic events such as colliding black holes, the collapse of stellar cores (supernovae), coalescing neutron stars or white dwarf stars, the slightly wobbly rotation of neutron stars that are not perfect spheres, and the remnants of gravitational radiation created by the birth of the Universe itself.

However, it was not until less than a year ago, that distortions in spacetime itself were physically sensed by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, distortions that were caused by passing gravitational waves generated by two colliding black holes nearly 1.3 billion light years away. LIGO and its discovery will go down in history as one of the greatest human scientific achievements.

Professor Strassler grew up in Berkshire County, where he attended Bard College at Simon’s Rock, going on to earn an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Ph.D. at Stanford. He worked as a postdoc at Rutgers University and as a long-term member at the Institute for Advanced Study, and was a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Washington, before becoming a full professor at Rutgers University. In 2007 he was elected as a member of the American Physical Society and has served as a visiting scholar and visiting professor at Harvard, and a Simons Foundation fellow at the Galileo Galilei Institute in Florence, Italy.

OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, provides stimulating educational, social and volunteer opportunities designed especially by and for people fifty years old and up. OLLI has over 1,000 members throughout the greater Berkshires and features over 80 classes, events, workshops and speakers a year. For more information about OLLI and its programs, please visit or call 413-236-2190 or email to join OLLI’s mailing list.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s