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Dr. Christian Killow
I was asked recently how one defines a
‘top’ physicist. I replied that it’s much the
same as in any field: the person doing the
most ground-breaking and noteworthy
work; respected in their specialist field yet
accessible to the interested layperson. Dr.
Christian Killow is a name to fit that bill.
Based at the University of Glasgow, Dr. Killow
works in the School of Physics and Astronomy
and also is a lead contributor in the fields of
precision metrology and hydroxide catalysis
bonding. A fellow of the Scottish Universities
Physics Alliance (SUPA), he specialises
in the detection of gravitational waves
(including projects with the European Space
Agency on the LISA Pathfinder mission).
GRAvitational wave RESEARCH
GRAVITATIONAL WAVES
Gravity itself is an area of con-
troversy. It is on one hand the
force that binds the universe.
On the other, nobody knows
everything they’d like to about
it. Indirect detections can and
must be backed up by more
empirical evidence and Dr. Kil-
lows work is moving from the
indirect evidence and inference
in the field to more direct proofs.
He is aiming to confirm that the
waves can be detected, by meas-
uring displacements down to
the fraction of the diameter of
an atom. More precise measure-
ments will enable more precise
observations. Black holes are a
case in point: we know they can
be a source of the waves but can-
not as yet see what is going on
around them. Clearer measure-
ments will give a relevant data set
to understand the force of gravity.
The more we under-
stand gravitational waves,
the better we can un-
derstand gravity itself.
Dr. Killow is confident this can
all be mastered and that every
step forward is a positive one
in the field of ‘big science’.
LISA PATHFINDER is significant especially: its about testing in
flight the detection processes for gravitational waves via two
test masses inserted in near-perfect gravitational free-fall;
with the latest technology minimising extra forces on the
test masses to take measurements. It’s a joint NASA /
European Space Agency mission and an unprece-
dented breakthrough is imminent. Dr. Killow is one
of the key players in that potential leap forward.
Dr. Christian Killow
I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Killow. He gave
his valuable time to talk about his work (past, present
and future) and lifelong passion for science. A young,
vibrant and enthusiastic man, Dr. Killow is approachable
and relaxed but as meticulous and precise as one might expect.
He manages to make every point accessible in clear sense
to the non-scientist, whilst leaving one with no doubt
that his work is facilitating vital breakthroughs in realising
the highest of ambitions in physics and astrophysics.
His interest in Physics began as an A level student. He went
onto study Physics with Astrophysics at Queens’ University,
Belfast. Following on from a Masters, he went to Australia and
did some pre Doctoral work in optics before a PhD at Glasgow.
Focusing on gravitational waves, he found it to be the most
technology rich area, and found new opportunities to work on
detecting gravitational waves using space-based detectors. That
has been the basis of his work ever since, branching into optics,
space flight instrumentation research and advanced interferometric
techniques as the bridge between all his working areas in Science.
Collaborators
include Airbus Germany,
the Albert Einstein Institute
in Hannover, NASA and the European Space Agency. The
main mission is to use space based technologies to measure
inert masses and infer the existence of gravitational waves.
Everything hinges on the technology and the investment in
space based technology. It’s about fusing industry and science
with academic research in the field of optics, too and using
progress in optics to make the first direct detection of gravitational
waves, and then realise a whole new type of astronomy.
3
That leads to an inevitable
discussion of the money. It
IS sometimes problematic to
fund grant proposals when
the outcome of the research
is difficult to predict precisely.
But Governments now have
a greater sense of urgency
in their quests to invest in
science. Whilst one cannot
say for sure whether each
experiment will have a definite
result, Dr. Killow makes clear
that the work is worthwhile in
and of itself. The disciplines
he uses are self-contained, yet
they complement each other.
The technologies involved are
themselves special. To measure
a millionth of a millionth of a meter
over the timescales involved
is a breakthrough in the field
of measurement and studying
light and optics. It might not
prove a theory about gravity
immediately but its progress
is a remarkable product of
practical and academic science.
The fields of precision metrology
and hydroxide catalysis
bonding are therefore also
ongoing concerns in Dr. Killow’s
research. Applying chemistry
and experiments involved
move the physics forward
but contribute to science and
technology as a reward in itself.
The method becomes its own
aim and that is clearest in the
field of bonding: creating
new forms of glueless joints
that can be used in space
exploration, whether or not that
exploration ultimately proves a
particular gravitational theory.
This is an inter-disciplinary
approach. Dr. Killow is a
champion of collaboration
between scientific branches. He
likes to experiment at a practical
level: lab work is essential,
although he concedes there
are ‘pure’ theorists in physics,
mathematics and computing.
Interferometry is the bridge
between all the areas:
logistical, practical, scientific,
academic and corporate.
He does recognise it’s a
competitive field, but there is
also a common drive to move
the subject forward. Anyone
in the area can appreciate
healthy competition between
Universities whilst also
understanding the need to
join forces in the service of
‘big science’. To that end, Dr.
Killow is a member of SUPA
(Scottish Universities Physics
Alliance). ‘When a collaboration
works, everyone wins’.
FUNDING RESEARCH?
This is an Interferometer, it uses light
as a very precise measurement tool.
4
event to mark that in the last third
of the year. Expect something
more specific in terms of dates
sometime in the next few months.
Thats a big deal for the UK,
the University of Birmingham
and Imperial College London
have also provided hardware
for the project.. Its an exciting
and new opportunity which
confirms science is coming back
to the centre of British society
and culture. ‘Twenty years
ago, it wasn’t cool to be nerdy;
now its a far healthier culture’.
Dr. Killow even recognises the
value of science fiction and
pseudoscience in the bid to
engender scientific literacy.
Anything that gets people
thinking is a good thing; there’s
a lot of science in science fiction;
there’s a big following for science
fiction within this School alone!’
Intellectual Property can of
course be a problem: many
academics shy away from the
issue. Dr. Killow notes that the
University of Glasgow is more
proactive and revolutionary.
Research scientists are welcomed
knowing they can ‘Come and
work for us and we’ll give you
the IP rights’. (on inventions and
discoveries from their work).
The University still patent
things and seek out ideas
that make money and invest
in their legal protection. But
it’s another example of how
a perceived problem can
become an opportunity and
once again it is Dr. Killow who
personifies that positive attitude.
He is a cautious optimist.
That optimism is paying off and
there is an imminent launch of the
‘PATHFINDER’ project, with an
Its the passion thats crucial
and an interest in science
fiction can reflect a passion for
science fact. People just love
to talk about their interest and
their work and thats why its
a great job to be a research
scientist. Working in academia
is a ‘privilege: we are funded
by public funding; you might
not make your fortune but you
could do; its highly competitive
but there are huge rewards as
you can spend time working
on things you are interested in.
He likes to see good, scientific
argument, rather than ‘person
in white coat says this, therefore
it’s right.’ Dr. Killow makes it
clear that Scientists ‘don’t just sit
in ivory towers; we are proactive
and universities ar becoming
more outward looking’.
intellectual property
5
STAY TUNED!
There is of course a tendency to resist ‘corporatisation’ of science yet that very ethos is
enabling greater access to media management of scientific breakthroughs and that is
filtering down to generate the wider public understanding of the discipline.
Dr. Killow is encouraged by the results coming from the web based interactions from scientific
news, with sites such as BBC news generating lots of ‘hits’ on science based pieces. That
extends to the realm of scientific speculation: alien life, time travel, string theory and so on are
all fun to discuss and describe and thereby compliment the fields of scientific research and
the critical public awareness that can keep that going.
With such passionate and inspirational figures as Dr. Killow at its helm, any increased drive for
the wider awareness of science should be a great success. We wish him every success with his
endeavours and will keep you posted on any major developments as they arise in the months
ahead.
@whatisuniverse.com

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20.03.2015by James Murphy

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