Adams-Sweeting Lecture: Professor Sheila Rowan

Good evening, everyone.

On behalf of the University, I am delighted to welcome you all here in person, and especially our honoured speaker Professor Sheila Rowan and other distinguished guests, to this Adams-Sweeting Lecture.

It was Albert Einstein who said: “The soul given to each of us is moved by the same living spirit that moves the universe.”

Well, in the case of tonight’s speaker I think it’s fair to say that ‘the soul given to Sheila is moved by sensing what moves the universe’.

Like the careers of many successful scientists, Sheila’s catalysed from an ambitious goal – and a risky one at that!

Einstein had long predicted the existence of gravitational waves, but their detection had eluded scientists for decades.

That’s no surprise, perhaps, when you are searching for movement that is smaller than the nucleus of an atom!

But ever since her days as an undergraduate in Glasgow, the idea of developing a whole new way to listen to what the universe tells us had inspired Sheila in the lab.

That early work on making detectors evolved into a collaboration with the international Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory.

In 2015, LIGO detected gravitational waves just weeks after the highly specialised mirrors created by Sheila and her team went into the experiment in the US had been installed.

Talk about making an impact!

It was a surprise to get a result so soon – but what a result it was.

Those detectors were sensitive enough to capture waves produced 1.3 billion years ago when a new black hole was born following the collision of two black holes.

Remarkably, that detection occurred on the 100-year anniversary of Einstein’s prediction of general relativity – while the announcement of the news took place on the 100-year anniversary of the prediction of the existence of gravitational waves.

You could say it was the universe’s way of saying well done!

That, as they say, was just the start… Sheila went on to become chief scientific advisor to the Scottish Government and President of the Institute of Physics.

In the 2021 New Year Honours she was promoted to Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to science.

It was only natural that Sheila should go on to research gravitational waves in space, with ongoing interests in studies of ultra-sensitive mechanical systems and investigations into how to make optical systems for interferometric applications mechanically stable.

This puts Sheila at the forefront of her specialism and a more than fitting speaker at this lecture series, which has a proud tradition of hearing from eminent scientists at the frontiers of science and technology.  

This lecture bears the name of two of Surrey pioneers- Professor Alf Adams and Professor Sir Martin Sweeting – whose achievements in science and technology are extraordinary.

I am delighted to see both of them present here tonight.  

Like Sheila, they both pushed the boundaries of knowledge through enquiry and innovation, translating ideas into impactful outcomes.  

Professor Alf Adams – by inventing the strained-layer quantum-well laser.  

Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, for pioneering modern small satellites.  

The impact of their world-changing discoveries and inventions is simply huge. Besides their inventions of solid state laser and small satellites, here at Surrey, we take great pride in our record of many undertaking world-leading research that delivers a real-world impact.

So, Sheila, you are in very good company, and I would like to salute you for the dedication and persistence you have shown in the pursuit of your pioneering research.

I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate you on taking up the role of Physical Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society of London at the end of this month.
It now gives me great pleasure to hand over to you for tonight’s lecture. Sheila, over to you.