Nergis Mavalvala, PhD is a Pakistani-American astrophysicist known for her role in the first observation of gravitational waves. She is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she is also the Associate Head of the Department of Physics. She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010. Mavalvala is best known for her work on the detection of gravitational waves in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) project, but she has also obtained prominent results on other physics problems that evolved out of LIGO: for example, she has performed pioneering experiments on laser cooling of macroscopic objects and in the generation of squeezed quantum states of light.
Mavalvala was born in Karachi raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Karachi, where she received her O-Level and A-level qualifications. She moved to the United States in 1986 and enrolled at Wellesley College, where she received a bachelor's degree in physics and astronomy in 1990. She went on to do her Ph.D. in physics from MIT in 1997.
Born to a Parsi family, Mavalvala was raised in the Zoroastrian faith. A lesbian, Mavalvala and her partner have two children and reside in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States. Mavalvala has extended family in Karachi and visited the city in 2010.
As a graduate student at MIT, she conducted her doctoral work under Dr. Rainer Weiss, where Mavalvala developed a prototype laser interferometer for detecting gravitational waves. After graduate school, she was a postdoctoral researcher and then a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, working on the LIGO. Dr. Mavalvala joined the MIT physics faculty in 2002. In 2017 she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
Mavalvala was among the team of scientists who, for the first time, observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime called gravitational waves. It was announced to the public on 11 February 2016. The detection confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity.
After the announcement of the observation, she became an instant celebrity scientist in her birthplace of Pakistan. Talking to the press she claimed that "we are really witnessing the opening of a new tool for doing astronomy."
During an interview with Pakistani newspaper Dawn, after the detection of gravitational waves, she claimed that she was baffled by public interest in her research in Pakistan. She said “I really thought of what I want people to know in Pakistan as I have garnered some attention there. Anybody should be able to succeed — whether you’re a woman, a religious minority or whether you’re gay. It just doesn’t matter.” In a statement by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister praised Mavalvala, calling her a source of inspiration for Pakistani scientists and students aspiring to become future scientists. He also stated that "the entire nation is proud of her valuable contribution."
On 20 February 2016, Ambassador of Pakistan to the United States, Jalil Abbas Jilani, conveyed the Government of Pakistan's message of felicitation to Mavalvala for her outstanding achievement in the field of astrophysics. He also invited her to re-visit Pakistan, which she accepted.
Optical cooling of mirrors to nearly absolute zero can help eliminate measurement noise arising from thermal vibrations. Part of Mavalvala's work focused on the extension of laser-cooling techniques to optically cool and trap more and more massive objects, both for the LIGO project and for other applications, such as to enable observation of quantum phenomena in macroscopic objects. Prominent results from her group in this area included cooling of a centimeter-scale object to a temperature of 0.8 kelvins and observation of a 2.7-kilogram pendulum near its quantum ground state. These experiments lay the foundations for observing quantum behavior in human-scale objects.
Mavalvala has also worked on the development of exotic quantum states of light, and in particular the generation of light in squeezed coherent states. By injecting such states into the kilometer-scale Michelson interferometer of the LIGO detectors, her group greatly improved the sensitivity of the detector by reducing quantum noise; such squeezed states also have many other applications in experimental physics.