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Exploradio Origins sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University.

Exploradio Origins: Echoes of Colliding Neutron Stars

A photo of rings from a neutron star's flare.
A look into how LIGO is helping us to understand matter.

Scientists have spent centuries studying how matter works. They’ve boiled it, they’ve frozen it, and they’ve even thrown it into particle colliders and smashed it up. They’ve learned a lot about what matter does in these conditions, but--that’s just what we can do on Earth.

“A neutron star is basically the densest object aside from a black hole. When they collide, the matter itself is deformed in such a way that we can probe densities inaccessible to laboratories on Earth,” Leslie Wade said.

Wade is Assistant Professor of Physics at Kenyon College. Neutron stars are basically neutron-rich atomic nuclei that have grown star-sized. When they smash into each other, they give off gravitational waves- tiny expansions and contractions of space itself. LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory can see these gravitational waves, and Wade hopes to use these to figure out what happens to the matter in neutron stars when it gets smooshed.

“Given how much the neutron stars deformed before they merged, that information can be mapped right back to the inner workings of neutron star matter,” Wade said.

By outsourcing matter experiments to colliding neutron stars and interpreting the resulting gravitational waves, Wade hopes to take humans’ understanding of matter out of this world.

Kellen McGee is currently pursuing a PhD in nuclear and accelerator physics at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She’s held a number of research positions, ultimately becoming a research assistant in a biophysics and structural biology lab at Case Western Reserve University. There, the Institute for the Science of Origins instantly became her intellectual home. Central to the ISO’s mission is science communication.