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Interview of Corey Gray by David Zierler on November 2, 2020,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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In this interview, Corey Gray, Senior Operations Specialist at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, describes daily administrative and research life at the Observatory, and he recounts his family’s Siksika/Blackfoot heritage on his mother’s side and his Mormon heritage on his father’s side. He recounts his childhood in Southern California and how he navigated his Native American identity throughout his education from public schools through Humboldt State, where he majored in physics. Gray describes the opportunities after college leading to his employment with LIGO at Caltech, he explains working at LIGO before and after the detection of gravitational waves, he describes those momentous days in September 2015 when the detection was confirmed when he was Lead Operator. He explains some of the technical challenges in developing and maintaining the LIGO detectors, and he emphasizes the importance of the work environment being friendly and inclusive. Gray credits LIGO’s founders and Nobel Prize winners for making everyone feel included in this recognition, and he describes how his mother became involved in his developing interests in becoming a science communicator to the public, and in particular to Indigenous groups. He describes his long term goals to bring more Indigenous students into science and he explains the development of the Society of Indigenous Physicists, and at the end of the interview, Gray conveys his optimism both for LIGO and for the continuing value of his outreach efforts.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is November 2nd, 2020. I'm so happy to be here with Corey Gray. Corey, it's good to see you. Thank you so much for joining you.
Hi David. It's nice to see you and get to chat with you.
Okay. So, to start, would you please tell me your title and your institutional affiliation?
Yeah. I am a Senior Operations Specialist at the LIGO Hanford Observatory. That title varies sometimes, so it can be Operator, or Detector Operator, but technically I'm a Senior Operations Specialist. I work at the LIGO Hanford Observatory, but I work for Caltech.
An even better way to get behind the title is on a regular Tuesday afternoon, are you doing science, or are you doing administration?
You picked a day that's unique. So, for the LIGO observatories, Tuesdays are called “Maintenance Days.” The operators have different roles depending on how the detectors are functioning. So, if we're in an Observing Run, a “Maintenance Day” will consist of the operator on shift coordinating maintenance activities, Once “Maintenance Day” is complete, hopefully around noon, the operator will then work on restoring the detector for observing. When we're NOT in an Observing Run, such as now, “Maintenance Days” are pretty much like any other day when we are not Observing, Operators will be working with other staff on a variety of tasks ranging from work out on the floor related to the detector, which could be maintenance or just documentation, or catching up on things. So, that's what's fun about being an operator, because you get to do a little bit of everything with the machine.
When something really exciting happens, you can be the first person to see it.
We'll be one of the first people to see it. So, if a candidate event happens to zip right through the Earth, and our machines record it, we will get a text. But all of the members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration also get that text or email. But if it's the middle of the night, the operators on shift are going to be up for it, so they're going to see it. So, yeah, we'll be one of the first people to get excited.
So, your affiliation, your employer, is Caltech, but you're up in Washington State. What accounts for that separation from Pasadena?
Yeah. So, LIGO has two observatories: one in Washington State, and one in Louisiana State. They are both operated jointly by California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). So, those are the universities that operate the detectors. I've heard stories that MIT and Caltech would have liked to have had an observatory in the desert of Southern California, or up in the forests of Maine, but I think things happen with these kinds of projects, and locations turned out to be the way they currently are.
Is there any particular rhyme or reason why you would be an employee of Caltech and not MIT?
When I was an undergrad, I was looking for work. So, graduating from Humboldt State University, way back in 1997, I looked in the L.A. Times, and Caltech had an opportunity to go work in Washington State, and I wanted to get out of California. So, it was just a job announcement that Caltech had.
That's it. Well, Corey, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. I'd love to hear about your family background. Let me hear about your parents, your extended family, and your heritage.
Parents and extended family. So, I guess, I'll start with my folks. My parents met up in Alberta, Canada, because that's where my mom is from. My dad is from Southern California, and my mom is from Alberta. I'm Scottish, mainly, from my dad's side, and I'm Siksika, or Blackfoot, on my mom's side. My mom grew up on the Siksika Nation, which is about an hour downriver on the Bow River from Calgary in Southern Alberta. That's where she grew up, my mom, It's a small community, our reserve. In Canada, they call reservations reserves up there. So, Siksika Nation is a small community.
Is Siksika and Blackfoot interchangeable, or is Siksika part of the Blackfoot Nation?
Siksika is what we call ourselves, or that's what the Northern Blackfoot people are. There's the Blackfoot Confederacy that has four different bands. There's three of them up in Alberta, and then there's the big one in Northwest Montana, the Blackfeet Reservation. So, Blackfoot would be used for all four bands. You could just say Blackfoot generally, but specifically, the four bands are the Siksika Nation, the Kainai Nation, the Piikani Nation in Canada, and the Southern Piikani (or Amskapiikani) in Montana. So, those are the four specific bands of the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Where did your parents meet?
My dad was Mormon, and he did his mission in Canada. He met my mom up there. I don't think he's Mormon anymore, but back in the day, he just happened to be up on the reserve where my mom was at. That's how they met. They eloped and got married in Las Vegas, and then moved to Southern California where he's from. They got married, and then that's where we all kind of grew up. That's where my siblings and I grew up.
Was the elope decision because there were tensions from both or one family about this being a mixed marriage, or whatever the appropriate terminology would be there?
That's a good question. I've not pried too much or asked too much about that. I've seen pictures of them. I saw there was a wedding cake, and they were kind of dressed up. I don't know how long after they eloped the pictures of this wedding celebration were taken. I don't know too much about any kind of tension that was there.
Where did you grow up, Corey?
I grew up about an hour -- well, depending on traffic, an hour east of L.A., near San Bernardino, which is the bigger city, but Rialto is where I grew up.
In terms of your dual identity, what did you grow up closer as? Did you have Native American traditions, or Scottish American traditions that were part of your upbringing, part of your reality?
I think as a kid, I just grew up like a regular kid in Southern California. That's how I thought of myself. I learned more about my culture later on. I don't fault my mom for that, because my mom is a survivor of residential schools. So, that might be a reason why she did leave the reserve. She was taken away from her parents, as was the policy for both Canada and the U.S. Kids were taken from their parents in this federal policy of assimilation, where they were trying to -- the quote is, "Remove the Indian from the man." It's some quote like that, where they took kids away from their parents to take their culture, take their language away, and not live with their parents for basically K-12. That's what it was like for a century. There was a century, roughly, of that policy. So, my mom is a survivor of that.
So, your mom's own heritage was mostly taken away from her as she was growing up.
That's what the government or these residential schools tried to do. You hear the stories about how the kids hid from the nuns and the priests to speak Blackfoot, and remembering/practicing their culture behind the scenes--when the nuns and priests were not looking. A lot of Residential School survivors would speak their language in private—this is a true sign of Indigenous resistance & resilience, Residential school and boarding schools are synonymous. So, my mom grew up speaking Blackfoot as a first language, and she still speaks. She got through it, but because of that experience she went through with residential school, I think that's probably why my siblings and I don't know our language. My mom has been working on sharing our language with us though.
What were your parents' professions when you were growing up?
My mom basically just took care of us kids. She was the homemaker. My dad was sort of a self-taught electrical or network systems engineer. He worked at the Heinz factory when I was a baby, but eventually he did work for the phone company. Later on in life he became, basically, an electrical engineer with different companies throughout his professional life.
Corey, growing up yourself, you said you did not have much of a strong Native American identity. It's not how you thought of yourself, and perhaps it's not how your peers thought of you either.
I guess so. I mean, we went to powwows every once in a while. In Southern California, there is a big Native community there. There are memories I have from back in the day. I don't know if they still have these things, but there were these organizations called “Indian Centers.” I believe it was another part of the whole policy of assimilation, where all these Native people were taken away from their homes, and then moved to boarding schools, and thrown on the streets of different cities. That's what happened to a lot of these Indigenous people. One way governments tried to make it a little easier was having these facilities called Indian Centers where Native people could get together, and talk with each other, be there for each other. I remember visiting one when I was a kid. I think my mom worked at one in San Bernardino. So, I learned about it in roundabout ways. I remember in L.A., my brother and I were watching Bugs Bunny or something on Channel 11, KTTV, way back when. It was Bugs Bunny, and you don't think of that much stuff on TV when you're watching it as kids, but they had these stereotypical and racist images or cartoons of Native Americans. I remember my mom calling the TV station in L.A. saying, "You should not be putting that kind of stuff on TV." So, I grew up with my culture in roundabout ways. Later, I learned more about it on my own just through my university years.
Did you ever go visit your mom's family in Canada?
That's what I was also going to say. We always got to visit our family up in Siksika, basically every summer. that was one of the family trips we would take. We'd get to go be up there for at least a couple of weeks.
When did you start to get interested in science?
There are two things that I always share about that when I give talks. It's my dad -- because of his background, I just assumed -- I was interested in his work, but there were other things. He'd always like to tinker in the garage, so I'd always look over his shoulder, maybe annoyingly. I remember in high school, I saw this Volkswagen bus that was abandoned in some field, and I was riding my bike and said, "That looks awesome. I'd love to get that or buy it." We bought it and my dad and I restored it together. So, I think things like that did it. Also, I'm dating myself, but when I was in high school there was a TV show called MacGyver, so I wanted to be a Blackfoot MacGyver when I grew up, too. So, physics was kind of my path. I wanted to follow MacGyver's path when I was in high school.
That's fantastic. Did you know that you wanted to focus on physics and math when you were thinking about college? Was that part of your plan?
Pretty much. I was pretty much one of those lonely nerds. I'm not going to blame my choices and studies, but anything science is something that I was definitely interested in. One of my friends, too -- we grew up together and we're still friends. Maybe it was just in fun, but we always competed with each other. He was also interested in science and engineering, so we both went for science fields for our undergrads. That was another incentive for science, too.
Besides being one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, why Humboldt State for undergraduate?
The simple explanation is just that it's the farthest I could get away from Southern California without paying out of state tuition.
You were looking to get out of Southern California.
Yeah, yeah. It was too crowded, and back then it was much smoggier. I just love the Redwoods and the fog. There's a movie, The Goonies. I love The Goonies, and it looked like The Goonies up there whenever we'd have road trips through Northern California.
Who were some of the professors at Humboldt State that you got close with, who may have served as mentors, and who gave you encouragement?
Good question. It was a struggle. Physics undergrad was hard for me. Being Indigenous, there's just not that many role models that you have. So, I just took my classes. I remember somebody -- my E&M instructor. His name was Dr. Thompson. E&M was a yearlong course-- two semesters. He was someone that I still remember now. I visit Humboldt quite a bit now, and I remember seeing him after graduating, and talking with him -- I was walking down the hall, and he saw me, and I told him where I was working. He said something about the Cheshire Cat – referring gravitational waves and black holes with the Cheshire Cat. That's what he said about what LIGO was doing. This was years before we made any detection. So, I didn't connect too much with the instructors there. I just took the classes. I connected more with the Indigenous community on campus-- my savior in undergrad was a Native American science program on campus. That was where I basically had a “family” on campus. I was homesick my first semester there, and I found out about this group called INRSEP, Indians in Natural Resources Science and Engineering Program. It was so nice to have a family there. They saved me, and that's kind of where I followed a path of learning my culture and doing stuff like that.
Of course, for so many people, an undergraduate experience broadens your horizons in all kinds of ways. I wonder if part of your undergraduate experience was strengthening your own understanding of your Native American heritage.
Definitely, and it happened in several ways. INRSEP was huge. One thing I love is they started a student drum group, a pow wow drum. I got to learn how to sing powwow, which is actually part of Blackfoot culture. I got to find out a lot about the music of pow wows, and traditional music of Blackfoot culture too. It opened the door to find out more about my tribe, in particular, and our language. I did internships as well through INRSEP, and one of them put me at DOE, Department of Energy, in Washington D.C. I ended up getting housed with a Native family over there, and I got to learn about grass dancing in pow wows, which is also sort of a Blackfoot style of dancing. Yeah, so I got to learn a lot culturally in my undergrad, for sure.
It's kind of a metaphysical question, but I wonder with these experiences and given the fact that your mom's culture was very much separated from her, and of course, you're one generation separated from that. So, in some ways, your heritage was sort of a tenuous situation for you, and you had to rediscover that on your own. Did you ever feel that with these experiences that you tapped into something that was inside you that wasn't externally experienced?
I guess so. In mainstream society, it's always sort of a pendulum as far as being Indigenous. Sometimes it's something that you hide from, and that's what it was like for my mom because of the horrors of residential school. When I was in college, it was kind of cool to be Indigenous. So, in different ways, I was also able to recruit my mom. I think she maybe felt bad that she didn't get to pass on a lot of this stuff to us, but through my interests in learning about our culture, I did ask my mom a lot of questions, as much as I could. I'm hoping that helped her feel like she was filling that hole that was emptied for her as a young person. I'm hoping I'm answering your question right. I'm not really sure. I'm kind of going all over.
It's a difficult question to answer, but I guess what I'm driving at is with a pow wow, or any experience where you met other people that have a similar heritage to you, if you ever felt like you were tapping into something that was just very natural to you that couldn't be explained simply by some external experience. Something that was just sort of part of your cultural DNA.
Yeah. I mean, it wasn't natural. It was still hard, and it's unique for everybody. For me, being half was also hard, because I'm white-passing. People have assumed I'm a whole bunch of different cultures, and so I could pass for many ethnicities with that. Because of that, I also felt like I wasn't really Blackfoot enough as well, because I'm half. So, it was always tough to go back to the reserve and still-- I mean, I'm Blackfoot. I have a Blackfoot name. My family is somewhat prominent in the community, but I'm still removed. I'm a “city Indian,” and I was just barely learning my culture back then. So, it was a tough thing to get into. I don't know if it's just getting older, or what, but it's gotten easier for me, at least, more in the last few years, for sure. More, because I just don't give a crap anymore! Ha,
You mean, in terms of what other people think.
Yeah, I don't care about that. I used to be very self-conscious, and very quiet, and a very shy person, especially as a kid. I've learned to come out of my shell. Although, it's been hard, I've done that a little bit more. That's helped me to learn that stuff, I guess.
Corey, back on the academic side, did you always naturally gravitate towards experimental physics? Did you ever try your hand at theoretical physics?
No. I had no major plans as far as what I was going to do. I just wanted to get a Bachelor of Science degree in physics, and I wanted to do anything I could to do with it. I didn't look much beyond it. I just didn't think about a PhD at that time -- undergrad was just so hard for me & I just focused on graduating. After graduating, I think I was just ready to get a job anywhere in science, whether it's experimentally or sweeping the floors in the hallways for theoretical physicists! I don't know. So, it was just a tough thing when I was graduating. I didn't really have much of a plan. Right when I graduated, that's when my parents divorced. So, it was a weird thing when I walked at HSU because they separated weeks before graduation. The other thing that happened is my mom -- she beat me by like a year being the first person in my family to get a degree! Hers is in anthropology. I don't know why I'm talking about this, but she took a study abroad trip to the country Jordan. She was with an archaeological dig over there, and because of her job, as soon as I graduated, I went home, and I basically raised my two sisters who were much younger than me. So, that's what I did for like six months, and during that six months, that's when I looked for jobs. That's when I saw a teaching job in Boston, and then I saw this job in the L.A. Times for LIGO. So, after my mom returned from this archaeological dig, that's when I went to Caltech in Pasadena and took an interview for LIGO.
Corey, did you retain a relationship with your father after the divorce?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I'm still close with both my parents. My dad is a role model, and my mom is too. Maybe we'll talk about it later, but my mom actually works with me with LIGO work. We can talk about that, too.
Oh, very cool. What was the job? What was the announcement that you saw in the newspaper?
That's a good question. It was for an optics specialist, or an optical engineer, which I was not qualified for, but I just applied for it. I didn't think much of it. It was just an opportunity to get out of Southern California. I think, when I was contacted, they said, "You don't have the qualifications for that job, but we have another job that we think you would be suited for," which was an operator job. 1998 is basically a year after both observatories were given the “keys” for the buildings. The construction for each observatory for initial LIGO was completed in 1997, and so now they were just building the teams up to get ready to install hardware for that first generation detector for both sites. I was hired at the same time a whole bunch of other people were hired to build this machine.
Corey, of course, as an undergraduate straight out of campus, it would probably take a while to understand the very crazy and complex history of LIGO. I'm curious, in your first weeks/months on the job, what you picked up on, on where LIGO came from and how that might have affected you and your position there.
I could say so many things about that. I give talks quite a bit for science outreach, and one thing I talk about is how I learned about LIGO as an undergrad. Honestly, I didn't really learn much about it. I looked in my textbook for an upper division astronomy course, and there were only two pages out of this whole text. No pictures at all about gravitational waves. So, I didn't really know much about what LIGO was when I joined. As far as what I learned when I got there the first year, it was work. It was labor. The first week, I bought steel toed boots. I bought rain boots, because we had big metal parts that were being delivered to the sites. I had to wash them, so I got a hose and was wearing a rain suit washing these metal structures that we were going to install on the detector. That was within the first month that I got to do that. And then other things, just learning about safety in machine shops, or just working in labs -- lab safety. What else? Just being a part of a big science project as well. So, you already know Rai Weiss, but for me, I didn't know any of these scientists. Peter Fritschell as well -- I didn't know any of these scientists when I started, but I remember sitting in our conference room with other people from the observatory, and we were talking to people from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration from around the country. Email was only a few years old at that time to me, back in the late '90s. I remember on a conference call, we were all in this meeting, and someone on the other line was speaking, and I could just tell the mood changed in the room. As soon as this person spoke, you could just hear everybody be quiet. This person had all this energy when they were talking, and people were laughing, and that's when I learned: it was Rai Weiss! I think I might have asked, "Who is this person?" "Oh, that's Rai Weiss. He’s a founder of LIGO." I still get shivers thinking about it, because Rai is just an amazing person, and it's surprising because we'll still see him come visit the sites. He's still very involved with the detectors, and still doing cutting edge science for the detectors as well.
At what point -- maybe it was early on -- did you feel like you were involved scientifically? That it wasn't just about labor, it wasn't just about the steel toed boots, but you were working in a scientific capacity. You were part of the collaboration.
It's over a decade later. For me -- maybe not everybody, but for a lot of us, we had a narrow focus on specific tasks. It was either getting a clean room suit on, working in a clean room, assembling something on an optics table, or driving a forklift, or having a machine that's pretty much running and able to record data, and working shifts behind a computer, making sure that we're able to collect good data for the detector. I went through a decade, or 12-15 years of this focused & schedule-driven work.
I gave a TED Talk, and mentioned this story -- I think it was 2014 or 2015 (It was actually Sept 2011, almost exactly 4-years before #GW150914!). My roommate at the time and I went on a backpacking trip south of Mount Rainier. I was kind of always a little shy or scared to ask some of the scientists’ questions about the science of what LIGO is, My roommate was a grad student at MIT, and we worked together. We were on this hike, and we were on a trail right near Mt. Rainier, in the beautiful Goat Rocks Wilderness. I asked him as we were climbing this mountain, "How likely do you think it'll be that we'll make a detection?" Without skipping a beat in his hiking boots, he just spewed out these statistics, like what kind of rates we would have for detections. It wasn't a second thought for him! For me, up to that point, the detector was a machine. I had schedules to keep and things to build, but to think of the actual science and what the possibilities were, that's when I think, for the first time, that detecting gravitational waves could really happen! Maybe we'll make detections. Maybe it won't happen in my lifetime, but maybe it will. That's when I thought of the “big picture” for the first time, I guess. It was that time when I talked to my friend up in the mountains.
What was the research culture like, given the fact that this is decades where the actual detection is not a foregone conclusion? In other words, how do you push off despondency that it'll never happen, or boredom that nothing is going on? How is each day new? How does the collaboration retain focus and optimism that this is all worth it?
Yeah, I know. This is an NSF funded project, so there wasn't time to get despondent because we were on a schedule. We had projects and things we always had to be focused on. There were always problems for the machine that needed to be solved. That could be ranging from machine shops building parts on time so we could build the detector. There were so many things to do. There were always fires we had to put out and focus on. There wasn't time for despondency. There was always time to think about solving the next problem, however; our ultimate goal was working on getting to design sensitivity for this machine. Up until 2010, initial LIGO went for about 8 years off and on, and no detections were made. I could see how that could be depressing, but we didn't have time to be depressed, because years before 2010, advanced LIGO was already in the works and funded. So, we were already building up the machinery for this next generation detector. So, we were always focusing on the project and looking ahead. So, that's kind of how I think the focus on the science was.
Corey, can you talk a little bit more about the technical challenges? What would be a good example of having an issue with sensitivity, and how do you go about resolving it?
That's a good question. I could talk specifically about the subsystem that I worked with and am familiar with which were basically, the “shock absorbers” for the detector. The seismic isolation system for the detector is one of the biggest systems for the detector because it's the optics tables that all of the other stuff is mounted on or suspended from. These things are connected to the ground. So, between the ground and the optics table, we need isolation to basically make our mirrors “float.” For initial LIGO, we had a passive seismic isolation system. It was just springs and masses. Masses and springs that this table floated on. But for advanced LIGO, it became a lot more technical, because it was an active seismic isolation system, so we had sensors which could either be accelerometers, or seismometers that are in vacuum, that are sending signals to actuators, or motors. It's kind of like noise cancelation. Anything the sensor feels from the ground, it'll send a signal to that actuator to counteract it. That's an active system, so that gives us a lot more isolation than the passive system that we had for Initial LIGO. That's just one subsystem. So, it's just a lot more complicated. For that passive system that we had for initial LIGO, I could probably count how many screws we needed to torque or tighten on that thing on probably my hands and toes. It wasn't that many screws. But for this active system, there were thousands of screws we had to torque down. We also had to insert helicoils for the screws to thread into. So, I mean, there's so much more complicated engineering that was needed just for the “shock absorbers” of the detector! That's what it's going to be like for all the other systems, just for the hardware on the detector, it's a lot more complicated.
On the social side of things, what was the collaboration like? Were people friendly? Was it a supportive environment, and specifically, was it a place where diversity was valued?
That's one of the reasons why I've been with the project for so long. It's because of the people. I mean, the teams at the site are kind of like family. I spend most of my life with them. And then just working together with the other lab sites at Caltech, MIT, and Louisiana's observatory. We get along pretty well. That's why projects like this operate and function well. And additionally there's the larger LIGO Scientific Collaboration which has members from universities all around the world, so we would have people from all around the country and the world come and visit the sites to work with us in the lab or work with us when we're collecting data. So, we get to meet people from all over the place. So, yeah, that's a very cool thing about this huge group-- working with a big collaboration like that.
I think, with a lot of projects, and in science in general, diversity could definitely be improved. There's something like 1200 members of the LIGO scientific collaboration. For many years, I thought I was the only Indigenous person in 1200 people. That was tough, but that's changed. There are slowly other Indigenous people joining. That's something that could be definitely improved. More representation from underrepresented minorities is still in need.
You mentioned earlier that at about ten years in, something clicked for you, and your career went into the next level. Can you talk about that a little? What exactly changed?
What do you mean?
You said it was about ten years in before you felt like you had grown into a position where you were really much more involved in the science. In what way?
Are you talking about when I talked to my friend, the story about the bigger picture of the project?
How did it change?
You mentioned that at about ten years in, you had transformed from being narrowly focused on the technical details to having a broader sense of the science behind the collaboration.
Okay, yeah. I think the first time it happened, when I had that thought of it being a “real job in science”, and not just a job of turning a wrench and driving a forklift--was that talk with my friend. But then, of course, everything completely changed a couple years later! All of our lives changed when that first detection happened. That's September 14th, 2015. That's when everything changed. I gave talks a little bit before then, and I remember all of my talks being a struggle because all I would focus on is just the machine. "Oh, I built this thing." My talks were focused very much on the detector.
After the detection, everything changed because we were now a part of history, and because we were now connected with Albert Einstein, and we no longer had to worry about people wondering about if we're ever going to make a detection. That's when everything completely changed for us.
For me, it was luck -- I didn't know about LIGO when I took the job in 1998, and it was just a job for me. I think it's tremendous luck that I got to be in on this project right after undergrad, and that I happened to stay with it for so long that I got to be a part of this amazing story.
Corey, the run up to this momentous event in September of 2015, how dramatic was it? Was there a buzz around the workplace that the detection was going to happen, or was it really as dramatic as nothing special is going on to all of a sudden, "Woah, what is that?" How did that play out?
There's just a few things that I could say there, leading up to it, before first detection. Like I said before, schedule was everything. Everything was pushed on schedule and needing to reach these goals. That was the story leading up to that first Observing Run. Even before the Observing Run, we had this precursor called an “Engineering Run.” We were still working on the machine getting it ready. Scientists will always be wanting to tinker on it, so eventually, you get to the point where you have to tell all the scientists, "Get out of here. You can't tinker on the machine anymore. We have to start collecting data!" So, for this first observing run for advanced LIGO, I just remember all these preparations that needed to be done. This was our first observing run with this advanced LIGO detector. I remember procedures, protocol, and having a meeting with operators -- one of our head people for the site was just running through this procedure the operators would need to follow if there was ever a gravitational wave candidate. Operators had a written document that we had to look through and review. I had been there for ten years, and we kind of were familiar with this stuff, but we just didn't know what it was going to be like for the new Advance LIGO—we hadn’t collected data in 5years! So, that document was like a draft, it was going to be changing, too. All of this was new. In the control room, where the operators were going to be on shift, we were still working on alarms that would tell the operator there was something that might be a candidate, and just to give us warnings about something that's going on. A lot that stuff was still being developed. That's mainly the software side of stuff.
Procedures, documentation, and software stuff for the control room, all of that stuff was still being generated for the operators. The machine was pretty much ready to go, but we were still finishing up work for getting this documentation ready for the operators on shift. So, that was a few weeks before this engineering run started. And then shifts started, and there were a lot of things that were still being worked on, not related to the detector, but to get things ready for the Observing Run. We were rushing to start on the day NSF wanted us to start. We didn't think too much about detections. When we went through that procedure, the head of our observatory said, "If we get a candidate, this is what we need to do." Some of us thought that's not going to happen. We still have a few more years, but you kind of think about what if it happens? So, a few weeks later, it happened!
Was there a feeling of secrecy or guardedness in the days up to the detection? Were there people who were saying, "We need to be careful. We need to make sure we're really understanding what we're seeing"?
Secrecy before the detection? I did not come across any of that. At the time, as the supervisor for the Operator Team, I was solely focused on getting the team ready for the beginning of our first Observing Run. I was worried about our shift schedule, getting all the operators ready to operate this detector, and get ready for beginnings this new era of observing. It was a big thing for us to do this for the first time. That’s what I was focused on leading up to the first detection.
Did you pick up any cues -- for example, would people like Barry Barish, or Kip Thorne, or Rai Weiss, were they making more frequent visits to the observatory during this time?
Gosh, I don't really remember that. I think I was just too focused on making sure everybody made their shifts! I think that's all I was focused on. At the time, I was the Lead Operator. I kind of had to worry about all of the things that operators might be thinking of when they're on shift. I needed to make sure that documentation was available on web pages, so that if something happens, they can go here and do this. I was too focused on that, personally.
What was the day like for you, September 14th?
This was the engineering run. Are you familiar with what that means?
Yeah, but please, explain.
I was at the site on that day. For the observatory here, we had three 8-hour shifts: the day shift, the evening shift, and then the graveyard. I was there for the evening shift from 4pm to midnight, and for the engineering run at our observatory, the day was allowed for the scientists to do work on the detector and run active measurements on the detector. So, during the day, scientists kind of had it, and the operator was there to assist & document activities. If the machine goes down, the operator would bring the machine back up and hand it over to the scientists so they could do measurements, or whatever. So, that's what most of the day was like for me. Then, at 10pm, the scientists were like, "Ah, I'm done. Corey, it's yours. Lock it up and go to “Observing” What did we call it back then? Everything was still so new that we were getting used to a new term we coined for when we were set to let the detector run and record data, For Initial LIGO, we called this state: “Science Mode”, but for Advanced LIGO, we called this state: “Observing Mode”, That night we might have said Science or Observing, I can’t recall, Whatever the case, I eventually took over, and I brought the machine back up -- usually an hour is what it would take. Then around midnight, the next operator on shift came in to spell me, We had hired her earlier in the year; she had recently completed her undergrad studies. This was her first job. She'd only been there a year or so, and she had the graveyard shift, I had just handed the machine over to her. I said, "Okay, it's locked up. You can take it to observing mode." When I say observing mode or science mode, that's basically when we lock the whole system, and you can't do any active tinkering on the detector. You can't push a button, you can't make any changes (to the detector), all the data coming from the machine is pristine and not being touched or anything. So, she's the one who took “H1”, the name of the LIGO detector in Hanford, Washington, to Observing on that night. At midnight, I just left because I wanted to go to sleep.
I remember, and I say this in my talks, too, but basically, around the time my head hit the pillow, that's when that signal from a billion light years away passed right through me, you, and the Earth--as my eyes were closing! And then I went to sleep. The next morning, my morning ritual would be opening my computer, wiping the sleep from my eyes, and checking email -- also, looking at Control Room screenshots, because we take screenshots of the control room just to see how the machine is going. So, I'd look at that. The detector becomes your baby. It becomes a part of your family. You're really close to it and bonded with it, so you want to see how it's doing, even when you're not on shift! So, those are the things I check. Then, I look at this email, and the subject was, "A very interesting event," or something like that. And so many replies were attached to it. I thought, what the heck is this all about? And then I went through the emails and I just saw mention of this possible detection that we made.
Who was the email from?
Oh, I could get you his name. It's on a PowerPoint that I have here. This person sent this email, I think, within an hour of the signal passing through the Earth. This person wrote this email because, for him, it was lunchtime. He's in Germany at the Albert Einstein Institute, AEI. I should know his name, because I use the screenshot of his email in my talks. I could give it to you later. Yeah, so that's when it really hit me personally. That's when everything changed. That's the exact moment.
Did you throw on clothes and get to work immediately? What did you do at that moment?
No, I thought -- wow, that's so crazy because this was the very beginning and we barely turned the thing on! Because I'm an older person at the observatory, I figured this is probably just a test. This has got to be a test. It had to be a blind injection to test and run through all of our systems to see how they handle signals coming through the detectors. That's what a lot of us thought, and I think that's what Rai and Kip thought in interviews I've seen of them talking about it. That's what I thought, too. When I got to work, I think I probably got to my shift a little bit early, because I wanted to see everything going on at the observatory. Maybe that's when you could kind of sense a little bit of secrecy, because people didn't want to do cartwheels down the hallway, but you could sense there was a buzz. I didn't know who to really talk to. It was probably once I got into the control room for my shift, that's when I talked to somebody and asked, "Is this real, or was it an injection?" I did get different answers from different people. It just depended on who you talked to. But it was exciting, for sure.
Did the buzz around the Nobel happen right away, or did it take a little while for that to build up?
Oh, yeah, the buzz is going to be definitely a year or two later. I think the decision, or the cutoff date is around January of every year for the Nobel Prize. So, the detection was in September, and we announced in February. So, after we announced there was some talk of maybe they'll [Nobel Committee] bend the rules because this is a big discovery, but not much talk happened about it. I think, October of 2016, I did set my alarm clock for 3 in the morning to wake up just to see if maybe there was a chance that the founders would get the award, but it didn't happen. So, I think the next year was more when the buzz happened, and we were thinking now it could be a possibility.
Were there any concerns that this was not what people initially thought? How do you confirm something like this?
It's tough. It's a big discovery, and you don't want to get it wrong. That’s why it took so long for us to announce. I say “long” -- maybe that's not a long time. Five months is not a long time. We have thousands of channels that need to be looked at. The gravitational wave signal data from both detectors has to be completely analyzed, so there's so much work that goes into that. I've seen videos -- you might have seen them too, where people were playing devil's advocate and thinking could some perpetrators outside of the collaboration in any way have done this? But the machines are so complicated, and to have it seen on both detectors within seven milliseconds -- you know, 0.007 seconds of each other -- with these complicated machines, it would take so much to be able to make that happen.
Was that built into the detection? Was that supposed to be the way to confirm that this was the real deal to have that redundancy?
Definitely, yes, having two observatories, yes. From the beginning, for the project, they wanted to have that redundancy with two detectors. If there was ever going to be a candidate detection, for operators, that was a stress we always had as operators--We always want to have double coincidence. That means that both machines (in Louisiana & Washington) are up and collecting data, because if you just had one up, it could be a strong, big signal, but because it's the first detection, it would be very hard to stand behind with a single detection—especially at the beginning. We always had to have double or triple coincidence. Triple, meaning when another detector goes online and joins us, we would have even more data to strengthen the case. Virgo is the other detector that joined LIGO in August of 2017. The more detectors you have the better it is for getting source locations in the sky. But for the historic first-ever detection, redundancy from multiple detectors was huge.
Corey, it's so important to correct the mistaken popular assumption that once the detection happens, it's sort of like LIGO did it. It's a done deal. We can wrap up, and we can go home now. In what ways is that really just the beginning? Literally, in the days after the detection, how did your workday change to make it sort of like now we're looking toward the future, toward the next thing that LIGO can do?
Immediately after the detection, one thing that happened I forgot to say is that we froze the configuration of the detectors. In other words, we didn't make any changes to the detectors. I mentioned at the beginning that Tuesday is maintenance day. So, every Tuesday, even in observing runs, we have at least four hours, or the whole day where we allow people to go do maintenance work. After GW150914, we minimized a lot of those activities so that we'd keep the machine, as it was when that signal passed through the Earth. The other thing is operators made sure that we could record as much data as possible. We acquired a lot of background data to help with data analysis. As far as what's next, that first detection is the birth of gravitational wave astronomy. With that said, how does this new astronomical field progress? It progresses by making more detections. That's the job of LIGO and other gravitational wave projects around the world. The future is improving the sensitivity, or reach, of the detectors so that we could see farther out into the universe and increase the rates of detections, Ultimately more detections, provides more science.
I want to ask, as the Nobel Prize is being announced, in what ways did you feel that indirectly -- obviously, they can only give it to certain, very few individuals, but to what extent did you feel that you were part of that recognition, and how did Barry and Kip and Rai set the tone for those feelings for the entire collaboration?
What was the first question?
Did you feel like you were being honored yourself as part of the collaboration?
Definitely. Rai and Barry and Kip made it known [to the Nobel Committee] that this was a group project. This couldn't have been done without the collaboration, and they made that known. There are stories of them preaching that cause to the Nobel committee, because that's how science is nowadays. It requires collaborations, They weren't able to change the Nobel committee’s decision, but at least they voiced their opinion. They let everybody in the collaboration know that we were a part of it. There's a letter in our control room that I think Rai, Kip, and Barry drafted. It's framed in the control room, and it just talked about how the work of LIGO couldn't have happened without all of the members of the team. There are other rewards where they did reward the whole collaboration. There's the Breakthrough Prize. I have that framed on my wall back there. All of the members of the collaboration got the certificate and even cash. We were also mentioned in the Breakthrough Award show --Morgan Freeman talked about gravitational waves! So, that was exciting, too. It was so awesome with the Nobel, though. I knew that if they won it, I would take vacation time, pay my own way, and make sure to travel to Stockholm! I did, and my family wanted to go—so my siblings and father joined me. We tailgated outside of the Concert Hall in the cold while they were getting their medals. It was amazing!
How did things change for you after this, on a day-to-day basis? Did it feel mostly the same, or did things really feel different?
It felt different, for sure. We're legit. We're part of history, so it's a different feeling. It's not just a job where you're just focused on a specific task. It's just a completely different type of job, and like I said, it's totally luck and happenstance on a personal level. Luck plays a big part of it, as far as my part in it. I just happened to graduate at a certain time, took a job, and I moved up here. But like I said, earlier, I was a shy person, and I hated giving talks. I was encouraged to do it, but at the beginning, I would have talks focused on building the machine and running it and operating it. But I was encouraged to be a science communicator and do outreach. After the detection, we now had a story. We had an awesome story! I worked on focusing on this story with my talks after the detection. I have a lot of energy and passion and excitement, still, for that first detection. A lot of my fellow collaborators are like, "Ah, it's the first one. That's old news. There are so many other cool detections that we have." But I still love the first one, and I still get excited about it, and I always talk about it every time I'm out there. I don't know if that's maybe a reason why, but I get a lot of requests to give talks. That's part of it. It's because of this huge story, and then the way I tell it, but then the other thing is I'm Indigenous, and there are not that many Indigenous -- I don't know how to label me -- operator, scientist, physicist, whatever. I don't know what I call myself nowadays, but there are not that many people like me, so I get a lot of requests. That's a juggling act that I've been trying to deal with; how to handle that and learn to say “no” sometimes. I try not to ever say “no” whenever it's a community that's an underrepresented group. If it's an Indigenous community, I'm always going to say “yes.”
Corey, going back to before, when you first started with LIGO, and you were so intellectually detached from the science, and not really knowing much about gravitational waves, and knowing the history and Einstein, in what ways did the detection itself influence you intellectually? What did you understand about how the universe worked? Not only did you not understand it, you didn't pay it much thought at the beginning of your career?
Yeah. Just getting to kind of get familiar and wrap my brain around GR, general relativity, was a big thing. I didn't really have to worry about that before the detection, but with giving talks, I had to learn a little bit about that. When my mom listened to me give a talk once, she said that I should probably focus a little bit on black holes and how to explain that in a way that is easy for people to understand. So, that's one of the things that I focus on. I focus on general audiences. I don't have a PhD, so I don't get very technical. I focus on getting the science out there and understood by general audiences in an exciting way. Did I lose what your question was? What was your question again, David?
The way that the detection itself brought you closer, intellectually, to understanding what Einstein was getting at, and how the universe works.
Yeah. A good way to understand something is to explain it to others. So, with talks, that's helped me. Then, just the scope of the enormity of our universe: how far away some of these detections are is just unfathomable; how big the universe is and how far away these events happen. And just the possibilities of what's next. There's so much wonder out there that you get from learning about this. That's stuff that I didn't really have when it was just a job. Now it's more than a job.
I've been waiting to return to this idea that your mom has become a collaborator in your career. In what ways?
Yeah. So, leading up to the first detection announcement -- September to February, that's when we were under embargo. We couldn't say anything about the detection because we were still analyzing data, writing a paper, and preparing for the announcement. I was a part of the Education and Public Outreach group for LIGO, and in a meeting two weeks prior to the announcement, the topic of the draft of the press release came up. In this telecon, this meeting on the phone, there was discussion about getting the press release translated to as many languages as possible. I didn't bring it up at the time, but after the meeting, I did talk to the Lead of the outreach group about whether it would be appropriate if I could recruit my mother to translate the press release into Blackfoot. Now this is a touchy subject, because this was supposed to be top secret, and we were not supposed to let anybody outside of the collaboration know. Within an hour, that person wrote back to me and said, "I'm assuming this is a trusted colleague, and your mom is a trusted source, and you could share this with [your mother]."
My mom was excited and said yes. So, that's what my mom did. For two weeks, she worked and talked with family up on the reserve about this translation job.
I should note, when she [my mom] was younger than me, she was working on a Blackfoot dictionary because she noticed our language disappearing. She already had the workings of a dictionary, and knowledge of our language. Our Blackfoot language was a part of growing up for me and my siblings, because we heard it all the time. We never learned the language, but my mom spoke Blackfoot on the phone all the time to family, namely to her parents/my grandparents. So, we knew the importance of language, and so it was a natural thing for me to ask my mom to do this [translate the LIGO press release into Blackfoot]. So, I did. I asked her, and I'm her son. I'm her oldest, and she just said, "Yes, I'll do it." I thought that was it, but later on an NPR interview, I heard her say that she was so stressed out! I didn't know I put her on the spot like that, but she was really stressed out about the whole thing. She finished it a day or two before the announcement. I had a PDF of it, and I gave it to a collaborator, and they uploaded the translation to a LIGO webpage, and it was posted online and live for the announcement as well.
Corey, I know communicating scientific concepts to Indigenous and underrepresented groups is so important to you. What are the major things you want to convey in those talks? What are the things that you feel, of all the things to talk about, are most important, that you hope the people in the audience will take away, not just for that day, but that will stay with them? What are the things that are most important to you?
There are so many things that I try to convey, or try to get out there, just to connect with youth. The easiest thing, and it doesn't have to be me only -- it could be any Indigenous person in any field -- but with respect to science, just being out there, you don't have to be on an interview or on TV or whatever. Just be out there in some way. Let those young ones know that there are people like them doing cool things that they maybe never thought of. A lot of kids might just think of usual jobs, like being a basketball player, or being a teacher or something, but scientists are something that's maybe not on their radar. That's a big thing, just the act of being visible, in itself, is a huge thing. That's an easy thing. I always make myself visible.
As far as points that I try to convey in talks, I start a lot of my talks by showing the past. I talk about, just with my tribe in particular, about how Blackfoot people have always been connected to science, and have always been connected to astronomy, because it's in our stories. It's in the designs on our teepees. There are also these structures called medicine wheels, which are these piles of rocks that are arranged geometrically out on the plains; they are on the order of 5000 years old! The thought is they were used for ceremony and possibly to mark the seasons by looking at the sky. That's just astronomy with regards to my tribe, but there's other Indigenous science from many other tribes as well. That's why I always say that being a scientist is a natural fit for Indigenous people, and being a scientist is Indigenous.
I built a wooden kayak. It's in my garage. I just built it. I didn't think of it when I bought this kayak, but that's Indigenous technology. That's technology that's been around for thousands of years from the Inuit people of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. I try to share anything I can to make it known that science is a part of being Indigenous.
It goes the other way too, though, right? I mean, of course, we all understand that diversity is valuable in and of itself, but in what ways might you be able to convey to these groups, these audiences that come to listen to you, that diversity is actually good for the science?
It's good for the science. That's a good question.
In other words, science is a human endeavor, and it requires creativity and out of the box thinking. It benefits from multiple perspectives and multiple ways of seeing the world. So, I wonder how you might instill in some of these kids who might not have access points, or role models, or mentors, or even the slightest understanding that these kinds of things are available to them -- how might these talks serve, either implicitly or explicitly, through your own experiences as a role model, that diversity is actually good for the science? It's not just that the science is good for the diversity.
That's a good question. I don't think I talk about that too much in my talks, but that's something I should think about because it's so important-- the idea of where do ideas come from? Where is the genesis of thought, and where does it come from? Having different perspectives helps so much with science, and with just other subjects in general. This is something I probably should think about more. How did Einstein come up with general relativity? There were only a few cars driving out on the roads at that time! You never know where some of these ideas could happen next. It could be a young girl who's out on the “rez”, who just happens to like the way numbers work, and the way that science makes her feel. This person could just happen to be the next Einstein. That's why you just never know where these other ideas could be coming from. I never really thought of how important diversity is in that way.
Corey, just to bring the narrative up to the present, what are some of the things you were involved with in the past few years?
In the past few years, there's been quite a bit of outreach stuff that I do. Other than that, in the last few months, during COVID, a few fellow colleagues of mine, friends, are working on getting a group together of Indigenous physicists. So, that's basically started in the last few months. We've started to get all these people that we know who are Native, and who are involved in physics together. The plan is to connect Indigenous people in physics, and hopefully begin the work to inspire that next generation Indigenous Physicists. That's something that's been going on right now. I think we picked a name, and I think it's tentatively the Society of Indigenous Physicists, but we're still at the beginning phase. This literally just started happening over the last few months.
Like I said, this week, I'll be heading to the Observatory to do work in a clean room for the detector. I'll be working this week pulling out hardware with a team of other people. We have another year and a half of hardware work, of detector improvements and other upgrades to the detector to get us ready for the Observing Run number four (O4), which is the next one, which will be in 2022. Then, there are talks. My mother and I were supposed to give a talk in July 2020 at a Women in Physics conference in Canada, but that didn't happen because of COVID. We're slated to go in July of 2021, so it'll be nice to give a talk with my mom again for that. Then, just general outreach stuff. I've been on a kids' show for Indigenous kids up in Canada [“Coyote Science” Season 2 on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network]. I guess, that's about it. Then, in personal life, in COVID, I've tried to get outside as much as I can to maintain my sanity. Just yesterday, I got back from an 18 mile hike, so those are other things that I do as well.
Corey, have you been at the inclusivity and outreach project for long enough where you've actually seen a difference in the people that you've reached, in terms of the kinds of things that are now available, or things that -- programs or projects that students have embraced, in part as a result of the way you've encouraged them?
Excuse me, what's this project? Is this a real project, or are you just talking in general?
No, no. Your project of bringing the science in an outreach perspective. In sharing your story with these audiences, have you seen -- your ability to tell these stories and to offer encouragement to these underrepresented groups, have you seen any specific cases that you can point to and say, "I really made a difference. Somebody went for something that they never thought was possible before."
That's a good question. That's a hard thing to quantify, because I'd need to find out and follow what people are doing in their lives. I don't know. For the most part, this is something I think about. What are ways to reach more people? All I do is give talks, and some of them could be for as few as three people, or it could have as many as 300 people in the audience. I've been also lucky, again, with, like I said, that article with NPR with my mom and myself, and then there was an article with Atlas Obscura. Those hit a lot of people. It was amazing to find out how the story ballooned from those interviews. I didn't think too much about what my mom and I did, or my mom did, for LIGO, because it was just a natural thing for me to ask my mom to help her kiddo, me! But I gained the perspective of just how important it was after those stories from NPR & Atlas Obscura, just because of how people reached out to me afterward. So, that's one thing. Thinking of ways to get the story out there to a bigger audience is one thing I always think about. One of the audience members from one of the talks I gave, he was directly inspired by the language work of my mom. He's an Indigenous physicist, and friend, who just received his PhD from U-Dub [University of Washington] for work on gravity. He had his abstract for his thesis translated into Ho-Chunk, which is his tribe's language! He just did that this year when he graduated. He told me it was because of my mom's story. That's one I could definitely say was --
For sure. Is that, to your knowledge, the first time that a physics thesis has been translated into an Indigenous language?
As far as I know, yeah. I think so.
That's awesome. That's great.
It is cool. We're friends, and he's a part of that group, the Society of Indigenous Physicists. He's awesome.
Corey, now that we've worked our way right up the present day, I want to ask, for my last question, something that's sort of forward looking. I want to ask about your goals, both on the science side, and on the diversity and outreach side. On the science side, what else for you personally, in your career, do you want to accomplish as an ongoing member of this collaboration, and what might that tell us long-term about the future of LIGO? On the outreach side, what else do you want to accomplish as you continue to communicate science and continue to reach underrepresented groups and encourage them that these are careers, these are research endeavors that are as available to them as they were to you?
That's a lot. As far as the science side, it depends. I don't know if it's just the way I am, but I actually love my job as it is. For some people, it's a steppingstone to grad school, and for others, it's just a temporary, regular job type job. But I still get excited being in the control room and being there when a possible detection is recorded. I still get excited about that. I still love working out on the floor in the lab. So, I actually just like doing all of that. I mentioned before, I was a supervisor. That was a little tough for me, and it was stressful.
Because you were separate from the science. You weren't part of the actual work.
Kind of, and it's just being a psychologist, too. I didn't really like that part of it. I liked being connected more to the science, I guess. There's still so much that is in the future. To be a part of a field that's just beginning is really exciting, and thinking about what the other types of new detections are in store for us is also cool. Thus far, everything has been strong gravity mergers, or coalescences. That's what all the detections have been, 50 of them, officially. We haven't seen any other types, so that's what will be exciting, to see if we ever record a supernova, or record something that's completely different or new. So, that's what's exciting just for LIGO and Virgo and KAGRA, which is in Japan. And then there's just the other fields of astronomy that are looking at different wavelengths to find out what these other types of discoveries will be like by these other types of projects.
As far as outreach work, I try to always think about ways to be engaging and exciting. That's something that will never get old. I'll always try to think of ways to explain the science in a way that will be fun, and hopefully inspiring to audiences. For example, I always show my tattoo when I give talks. I have a tattoo of the first signal on my arm. Also, my tribe has a powwow every year, and in 2017, my cousin and I had the idea of having a “gravitational wave grass dance special.” Basically, we had the floor for 45 minutes, and we had 17 dancers who showed up for this dance contest. I got to speak a little bit about LIGO and talk about the gravitational wave science that we do--in this remote community of my tribe, If I inspired one kid out there, that would be a success to me. It's just trying to think of different ways to inspire that next generation. That's what I love doing, just trying to think of different ways to share science.
On that note, Corey, I hope that in some small way that our talk today only continues to help you in that endeavor. I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. It's really been a lot of fun, and it's been very important and special to hear your perspective on all of these things.
Thank you so much, David. Thank you for reaching out. It was a total surprise.