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Physics Professor Lands Sizable Research Grant

A professor and two alumni have received a grant to further understanding of gravity and the universe through a computer code.

3D contours of the conformal factor 'phi' in the vicinity of two spinning black holes. Phi is one of the variables solved for, and is used to transform the 'initial guess' or 'background' spacetime into a final, 'physical' spacetime which satisfies Einstein's equations.

The National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratories has awarded Physics Assistant Professor Scott Hawley a grant of 250,000 service units, valued at $112,500, to upgrade the code and allow it to be interfaced with other research groups around the world. The grant is a follow-up to the “startup” allocation of 20,000 service units Hawley was awarded last fall. It reflects NICS’s mission to support Tennessee institutions of higher learning and the National Science Foundation’s EPSCOR program.

“The fact that Belmont is a teaching university and located in Tennessee made it very easy for NICS to award my grant request,” Hawley said.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity says that gravity is an effect of the geometry of space and time being warped. When matter becomes super dense, it forms a spinning black hole, which is a region of gravity that is so intense that nothing can get out. Hawley’s research concerns the effects that the direction of the spin has on the gravitational attraction between two nearby-black holes and the ripple of gravitational waves.

“My research involves writing a general purpose, publicly-available computer code for solving Einstein’s equation, which will allow researchers around the world to produce more accurate simulations of gravitational wave signals,” Hawley said.

It took Hawley 10 years to develop the former version of the code, known as Tex Mex. He has dubbed the new version as BRUISER, an acronym standing for Belmont Research for Undergraduates In Studies of Einstein’s Relativity.

Alumnus and campus security officer Tyler Welton is working with Hawley to overhaul the codes to make them directly interface with the most popular simulations used in the relativity community. The two met when Welton took a class on the physics of audio engineering from Hawley, and they spent time writing plugins for digital audio work stations on Welton’s senior research project. Welton plans to re-enroll as a computer science major this fall as he works on BRUISER.

Hawley also continues to work with alumna Lindsey Thompson, a psychology honors student who took an interest in physics and ran simulations and computations on TexMex using a Belmont server until its 48 gigabyte memory was exhausted. She currently is a Fulbright scholar in England.

“Other people will begin collaborating with me to use the code in all of the wonderful simulations that they can dream up to do dealing with neutron stars and black holes,” Hawley said. His code currently works only for vacuum solutions, or empty space, and he is working with a Louisiana State University professor to make it functional on mass like neutron stars. “It really is a group effort and my code is just one important piece.”