Hafizah Noor Isa’s involvement came by way of her work in the worldwide network of gravitational wave detectors. Pix by NIK AMINAH YAZMEEN RAMSA

A PHD student, who was part of a group of scientists that proved Albert Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves, was jolted out of her comfort zone after having to deal with media enquiries about her achievements.

“Honestly, it’s awkward to have the media chasing after my family and I. I kept silent for a week because I couldn’t adjust to what had happened,” said Hafizah Noor Isa, 29, who was part of “the scientific breakthrough of the century” — for the first time, the warping of spacetime caused by a collision of two massive black holes had been detected.

This was first predicted in Einstein’s theory of general relativity in 1915.

A scientific paper published on Thursday listed the 1,004 collaborators of the project. Hafizah’s involvement came by way of her work in the worldwide network of gravitational wave detectors, or the GEO600 experiment.

When a Machang-born student was mentioned in the same sentence as the great Albert Einstein, it was justified that the media got into a frenzy. Hafizah decided to issue a statement to reply to the numerous emails in her mailbox.

“It is my hope that what little contribution I had made to this significant finding can inspire Malaysians, especially the younger generation, to dream big and work towards their goals,” said Hafizah.

“Nothing is impossible,” said the youngest child of Maimun Ngah, 65, and Isa Botok, 69.

She said it was her sister, Hatimah, who was good in physics, who inspired

her.

“I hope this will open new horizons for a new generation of young scientists to study the universe. I hope that the government will continue offering scholarships to deserving Malaysians who will thrive and make Malaysia proud.”

Prior to studying at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, Hafizah did her master’s degree in Material Physics under the supervision of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia Physics Department head Professor Dr Rahim Sahar in Johor.

She then worked as a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Mara in Pahang.

At the University of Glasgow, Hafizah was under the supervision of Dr Ian McLaren, senior lecturer of physics and astronomy.

“In the School of Physics & Astronomy, postgraduate physics students are affiliated with the Scottish Universities’ Physics Alliance. Ihad been entrusted by Dr McLaren to work in two groups: the Materials Condensed Matter Physics Group and the Institute of Gravitational Research (IGR),” she said.

Explaining her involvement in the Gravitational Research project, she said IGR focused on developing detector hardware and software for sensing gravitational waves (GW) from astrophysical sources.

“The work includes materials characterisation, advanced interferometry and novel data processing

for signal analysis. We carry out research related to the Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO), GEO600, LISA Pathfinder and other gravitational wave detectors.”

The technologies, developed in Glasgow, were selected as essential elements of the Advanced LIGO design, in particular, the fused silica suspensions.

Glasgow leads a United Kingdom consortium of universities working with LIGO to design, develop and install the fused silica suspensions that support the Advanced LIGO’s mirrors.

“Since my main PhD activity is on materials, my involvement was to understand the noise properties of the coatings applied to these mirrors; in particular to understand how to make better mirrors in the future and allow us to make more sensitive GW detectors,” Hafizah said.

British physicist and black hole theorist Stephen Hawking praised the findings of the researchers for the historic news, dubbed “the holy grail of science”.

In a BBC interview, he said: “These results confirm important predictions of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It confirms the existence of gravitational waves directly.

“Gravitational waves provide a completely new way of looking at the universe. The ability to detect them has the potential to revolutionise astronomy.”

Congratulating her team members, Hafizah said: “My contribution is nothing in comparison (to theirs).

“I feel honoured to be part of this well-established group of hardworking people. They taught me how to work productively and I admire their work ethics.”

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