A Look Back: Dr. Kelley Holley-Bockelmann
By:  Lara Casey

Jan 29, 2017
“Every move, every choice you make—all throughout your life—is making a gravitational wave, propagating away from you at the speed of light. And long after you’re gone, that imprint that you’ve made in the universe will exist.” --Dr. Kelly Holley-Bockelmann


Dr. Holley-Bockelmann, associate professor in the department of Physics and Astronomy at Vanderbilt University, brought her galactic style and enthusiasm to the TEDxNashville stage last year in her talk, “The Spacetime Symphony of Gravitational Waves.” That title might sound like that of a science fiction TV drama, but Dr. Holley-Bockelmann assured the audience that black hole gravitational waves are in fact real and they can be detected. “There is such beauty in our Cosmos,” she told us in an interview after her talk. “Not just that nebulae and galaxies are pretty, which they are, but there is a beauty in the physical laws that make up the Cosmos as well.”

Helping the audience, and the public in general, learn to appreciate this beauty is one of Dr. Holley-Bockelmann’s favorite takeaways from her talk. She recounted how one excited audience member came up to her afterward, gushing about how in just 18 minutes she had laughed, learned general relativity, and danced. Dr. Holley-Bockelmann was ecstatic. “They actually did the LIGO dance!” She was referring to a dance she and her colleagues made up to illustrate the method they use to detect these gravitational waves. “We’re geeks,” she said, laughing.

For those who didn’t make it to her talk, we could try and describe the dance for you (think “rave meets science fair”), but you really should just check it out for yourself here.

“They actually did the LIGO dance! That made my day.”

Dr. Holley-Bockelmann’s research continues: investigating how black holes are born, predicting the gravitational wave signal from a new class of black hole, and simulating how long it takes supermassive binary black holes to collide. Recently, she shared her excitement with another generation as a featured speaker at the Girls to the Moon Campference in Nashville. She hopes events like TEDxNashville will continue to inspire excitement and interest in the world of astronomical physics.

“We humans keep striving to understand how our Cosmos work,” she told us, “and although we don’t understand everything by a long shot, here are some things we know: space and time are interwoven, gravity carries a message about how matter moves through spacetime, and when black holes collide, they make ginormous waves in spacetime – and we can now detect it! These things fill me with such a profound joy that I just want to tell everyone about it.”

On a personal note, Dr. Holley-Bockelmann revealed that this was the first time her children saw her publicly speak about her work: “They’re seven and four so they don’t get general relativity (yet!), but now they do get that Mama is an astrophysicist. So. Score!”

In her professional life, she says, “the coolest thing she’s working on is a space-based gravitational wave detector that the European Space Agency and NASA are planning to launch within the next 15 years or so. I was appointed to be a part of the science team that is studying and advocating for the mission, called LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna). LISA will be able to detect supermassive black holes colliding, which is what I work on—so obviously I’m geeked out by this mission!”

If you want to learn more about gravitational waves, Dr. Holley-Bockelmann suggests http://stuver.blogspot.com is her go-to spot for accurate ways to explain complex topics and to get the latest cool images. Or, for a “deep dive” into the topic, check out http://sci.esa.int/lisa/41272-lisa-probing-the-universe-with-gravitational-waves.

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