Nicholas Lockerbie

Prof, (Emeritus Professor)

  • United Kingdom

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Personal profile

Personal Statement

Following B.Sc. (Hons.) and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Nottingham, and an ICI Fellowship, also held there, Nicholas Lockerbie went to work for eight months at the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, in Grenoble, France (to return there in 1990 for a year’s sabbatical from the University of Strathclyde), before moving on to a Royal Society Overseas Research Fellowship at l’Ecole Normal Supérieur in Paris, France. After Paris, Nicholas took up a lectureship at the University of Strathclyde, in 1980.

As Head of Gravitational Physics at Strathclyde, Nicholas Lockerbie led a small team working on experimental Gravitational Physics. In particular, and working closely with the Institute for Gravitational Research (IGR) at the University of Glasgow, this Strathclyde team tackled, inter alia, the devising, constructing, and testing, of specialised instrumentation designed to assist in the detection on Earth of illusive Gravitational Waves. In this capacity Nicholas was, until recently, a member of the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), and its extension, the LVC (the LIGO-Virgo collaboration)—both concerned with the detection of Gravitational Waves. Indeed, he is working at Strathclyde until the end of September, 2019, under an MoU with the Virgo Gravitational Wave detection team—which is based at Cascina near Pisa, in Italy.

Back on 14 September, 2015, an unprecedented discovery was made by the two giant LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) detectors, based in the USA. Gravitational Waves emanating from a pair of colliding Black Holes approximately 1.3 billion light-years away from Earth were detected, it being deduced, subsequently, that each of these Black Holes had a mass of order thirty times that of the Sun. After decades of work (40+ years by some team members), the whole international LSC team was absolutely jubilant!! However, the official announcement of this discovery was not made until 11 February, 2016, after some months of essential in-depth checking of the solidity of the results by the LIGO team.

In consequence of this discovery, on 31 October, 2016, Nicholas Lockerbie was awarded a President’s Medal by Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, President of the Royal Societly of Edinburgh. The Medal was awarded ‘For leadership of the work at the University of Strathclyde which resulted in contributions to the electrostatic drive and sensor systems, for the control of the Advanced LIGO suspension structures— essential for the subsequent detection of Gravitational Waves.’

Moreover, in January 2017, the Strathclyde team of Mr Sharat Jawahar, Dr Kirill Tokmakov, and Prof Nicholas Lockerbie, each received scientific Prizes, including ‘Special Breakthrough Prize Medals for Fundamental Physics, 2016,’ for their collective contribution to the detection of Gravitational Waves.

These Breakthrough Prizes (inclusive of the medals) were instituted by a group of entrepreneurs and philanthropists: Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google), Anne Wojcicki (co-founder of 23andme), Mark Zuckerberg (chairman, CEO, and co-founder of Facebook) and his wife, Priscilla Chan, Yuri Milner (founder of Digital Sky Technologies) and his wife, Julia Milner, and Jack Ma (founder and CEO of the Alibaba Group)and his wife, Cathy Zhang.

LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) is a planned European Space Agency ‘L’ (Large) mission, with a projected launch date in 2034: LISA is already a concept of long standing, however. It is intended to detect low-frequency Gravitational Waves by using lasers aboard a triad of satellites—which will monitor the ‘arm-lengths’ between pairs of satellites with quite unparalleled accuracy. As Gravitation Waves pass the satellites they will modulate the lengths of LISA’s three arms, i.e., the ‘strain of space as a function of time’—each arm being approximately 2.5 million km long. Naturally, the discovery of higher-frequency Gravitational Waves by the terrestrial LIGO (and, now, Virgo) detectors has delivered a timely stimulus to the whole LISA project. LISA will need to make use of ground-breaking, novel, technology, in order to meet its scientific goals, and for this reason a precursor experiment was devised: LISA Pathfinder.

In the run-up to the launch of the European Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder mission, on 3 December 2015, and subsequently, Nicholas Lockerbie was Chair of the UK Space Agency’s LISA Pathfinder Oversight Committee.

The European team which put together the LISA Pathfinder mission launched their ‘technology demonstrator’ into the quiet L1 (Lagrange-point) between the Earth and the Sun, approximately 1.5 million km from the earth. Here, the essential ‘drag-free’ control of the spacecraft was demonstrated about a pair of (essentially) free-floating cubes within the spacecraft, these cubes being manufactured from gold-platinum alloy, 46 mm on a side: lisa-pathfinder-test-mass/. The very first optical bench in space was used aboard LISA Pathfinder to measure the distance between the pair of test-masses, these being under almost perfect free-fall conditions, with unequalled precision. This optical bench was designed, built, and supplied, by members of the LISA Pathfinder team from the IGR. In the event, LISA Pathfinder demonstrated a level of measurement precision that not only exceeded Pathfinder’s own scientific targets—it actually exceeded the target for the future LISA mission, itself!! Indeed, the Oversight Committee heartily commended the LISA Pathfinder team for their extraordinary technical and scientific successes. LISA Pathfinder was de-activated on 30 June, 2017. The cost of the single-spacecraft LISA Pathfinder mission is estimated to have been €400 million: that of the future 3-spacecraft LISA mission, where each spacecraft will be equipped with a large reflecting telescope (which Pathfinder did not have), is estimated to be ‘over €1 billion.’

At the time of writing Nicholas Lockerbie has 200 publications, which include—perhaps unusually for an experimentalist—a theory paper in the journal Classical and Quantum Gravity (a ‘niche’ paper which nevertheless has been downloaded over 370 times): ‘The location of subterranean voids using tensor gravity gradiometry’: DOI: 10.1088/0264-9381/31/6/065011.

Currently, his publications h-index is 78 (25/05/2021).

Despite having retired (nominally) on 4 October, 2017, Nicholas remains active on behalf of the University of Strathclyde. Alongside the current MoU work with Virgo, under his present Research Professorship: -

  • He gave a talk to the National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, on 18 November, 2017: - LIGO’s and Virgo’s direct detection of a binary neutron star inspiral and ‘merger’—an instrument maker’s personal view.
  • Nicholas was External PhD examiner for Jonathon Baird, Department of Physics, Imperial College, on 3 April, 2018
  • He gave talks at Strathclyde on Gravitational Waves to Advanced Highers students, and some of their teachers, in December 2017, December 2018, and December 2019.
  • Currently, Prof. Nicholas Lockerbie is a member of the UK Space Agency’s four-person LISA Project Management Committee, for the future LISA gravitational wave space project. This committee met in Swindon for the first time on 13 February, 2019.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy

External positions

Member of the four-person LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna) Programme Management Board, UK space agency  

13 Feb 2019 → …


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