Is the speed of light really constant?

Two Western Australian scientists are moving fundamental physics questions from theory to lab with the help of high-precision, low-energy detectors.


Eugene Ivanov and Michael Tobar, of The University of Western Australia (UWA), have developed ultra-sensitive detectors to search for fundamental particles and other phenomena at low temperatures, allowing them to test previously theoretical questions such as the existence of dark matter and the measurement of gravitational waves.

Eugene Ivanov and Michael Tobar collaborated for more than 20 years on the technology. Credit: The University of Western Australia
Eugene Ivanov and Michael Tobar collaborated for more than 20 years on the technology. Credit: The University of Western Australia

“The next step in physics needs to be experimental,” says Michael.

“And where some people are looking to particle accelerators and other large infrastructure for answers, we’re implementing extremely high-precision, low-energy experiments in the lab.”

The team used sapphire, quartz and other crystals to develop this range of ultra-sensitive detectors.

“To get measurements at the kind of high-energy scales we’re looking at, you would need a particle accelerator about the size of our galaxy,” says Michael.

“Or you can use our crystals.”

The key to the detectors’ high sensitivity is a low-noise technology developed over 20 years by Michael and Eugene.

The technology is already used as a frequency generator, where its pure signals make it an ideal timekeeper: making our most precise clocks more accurate, driving super computers and improving the performance of GPS.

It also reduces the noise that limits the resolution of radars, helping pilots see clean air turbulence and stealth bombers.

The invention has been one of UWA’s biggest commercial successes, generating more than $30 million in sales under licence, before being sold to Raytheon in 2012.

Michael and Eugene were also awarded the 2012 Australian Institute of Physics Alan Walsh medal and the 2014 Clunies Ross medal for their work.

For more information: The University of Western Australia, Michael Tobar, michael.tobar@uwa.edu.au, www.physics.uwa.edu.au/research/frequency-quantum-metrology

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