Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

The NZ brain behind today's big breakthrough

As news of the biggest scientific breakthrough in recent times broke early this morning, a retired Bay of Plenty resident sat down and read the headlines with excitement.

Professor Roy Kerr, 81, had plenty to be elated about: much of the work under-pinning the discovery of so-called "gravitational waves" could be traced back to his seminal theoretical work more than 50 years ago.

An Emeritus Professor of Canterbury University and recipient of the Einstein Medal, Professor Kerr was credited with finding the solution of Einstein's equations which describes rotating black holes.

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The team of of physicists that confirmed the existence of gravitational waves -- ripples thorough our universe that have only been theorised until now -- concluded that they were produced during the final fraction of a second of the merger of two black holes to produce a single, more massive spinning black hole.

This collision of two black holes had been predicted by Professor Kerr but had never observed.

The confirmation by scientists at the US-based Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) finally validated a theory that he put forward at a conference in the early 1960s -- and which failed to convince many astronomers at the time.

"It's fantastic, regardless of whether or not it's connected to my work or not," he told the Herald at his home in rural Pahoia, about 25 minutes' north of Tauranga.

"But it is exciting to know that this is based on a very simple model of a black hole."

Professor Kerr, whose theory is widely known in physics as the Kerr vacuum, credited fellow pioneers in the field, including noted US physicist Joseph Webber, who was trying to detect gravitational waves back in the 1960s.

"Of course, he was billions of miles away from being able to observe it, so for a long time it look like you couldn't see gravitational waves."

But technological advances over the past few decades had refined the accuracy of observations, eventually bringing science to the point of today's mind-blowing breakthrough.

He was startled to learn that the Ligo team had been able to detect a black hole almost immediately after testing huge new detectors that had just been upgraded.

"So now they are going to take it for a proper run and are expecting to see lots of them."

This, he expected, would completely change our understanding of the universe and bring us closer to answer colossal questions such as what created the galaxies, what is dark energy, and why is the universe expanding.

"This is a great time to be a young physicist, because there are some tremendous unsolved problems out there that need to be solved."

- NZ Herald

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