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Northwestern University

Paths: David Reitze ’83

David giving a talk with a starry background behind himAs a teenager gazing at the night sky in Pompano Beach, Fla., David Reitze knew that his future lay in the cosmos. So eager was he to explore the sky that at age 15, following directions from a magazine for amateur astronomers, he built his own reflecting telescope. “It allowed me to see deeper into the universe,” Reitze recalls. “I was pretty happy, actually, with how it turned out. It worked!”

Now, as executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory at the California Institute of Technology, Reitze is helping to lead a team that’s peering deeper into space than ever before — and the results have been spectacular.

With the support of scientists worldwide, the LIGO lab in 2015 detected two black holes that were locked in orbit and eventually collided to produce a new, bigger black hole. Researchers detected the phenomenon by measuring tiny displacements of space produced by gravitational waves — an event predicted in 1916 by Albert Einstein.

“Conventional astronomy uses telescopes to collect light,” explains Reitze. “With our detectors, we’re looking at a fundamentally different part of the universe.”

Though neither of his parents had a college degree, Reitze was always set on a science career. He chose Northwestern “because the campus was beautiful and they had a telescope.”

“I majored in astronomy because I wanted to understand the universe,” he says. “But I had to take a lot of physics first, so by the time I was a junior, I’d already taken six or seven physics classes and I was really jazzed. You can write down equations that explain how things work and how the world works, and you can solve them! That really excited me, and it was also hard, which I liked, so I switched to physics with a minor in math.”

Two classes taught by Professor Martin Bailyn were critical to developing Reitze’s scientific curiosity and understanding: Introduction to Thermodynamics and an independent study on general relativity. “I got a very formal and rigorous science education and that’s what I needed,” says Reitze, who went on to earn his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Texas in Austin.

“But more importantly, Northwestern required us to take courses outside the major — a good deal of literature, philosophy, economics and psychology. I learned critical thinking skills and how to construct compelling arguments. Probably one of the most valuable parts of my education was learning to communicate.

“I interact with a lot of people,” he explains, “from the public to funding agencies to scientists. I make hiring decisions and give lots of talks. I’m so glad I went to Northwestern because as a scientist, I got exactly what I needed.”

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