Physicist Joey Shapiro Key is seen through a Celestron telescope in her lab at the University of Washington Bothell campus. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Physicist Joey Shapiro Key is seen through a Celestron telescope in her lab at the University of Washington Bothell campus. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Space talk: From ancient observations to latest breakthroughs

Joey Shapiro Key and Corey Gray to speak on “Indigenous Perspectives of Earth and Space” in Edmonds.

Since the beginning of civilization, humans have looked to the stars for answers.

Physicists Joey Shapiro Key and Corey Gray are no different — they just have a lot of advanced tools with which to do the looking.

Key, 39, of Bothell, and Gray, 46, of Richland, were among the scientists who made history when they discovered gravitational waves, or ripples in the fabric of space-time, made from colliding massive black holes a billion light-years away. Their work led to the award of a Nobel Prize to three physicists in 2017.

They will talk about their research before the NASA-inspired multimedia show “Bella Gaia” Jan. 17 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

The pre-show talk, titled “Indigenous Perspectives of Earth and Space,” will be presented in a TED Talk style. Also speaking will be “Bella Gaia” creator Kenji Williams.

Here, Key and Gray talk about their upcoming presentation, their groundbreaking research and what space exploration means for humanity.

Tell me a bit about what your talk will cover.

Key: I’ll introduce gravitational wave astronomy, black holes and the recent historic discoveries by LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors in Hanford, in Benton County, and Livingston, Louisiana.

Gray: I’m mainly speaking as a Native American and member of the Blackfoot tribe. My talk will be connecting indigenous knowledge to science or astronomy.

Why are gravitational waves from black holes significant?

Gray: It helped confirm an open end of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which had not been recently proven. It was 100 years in the making.

Joey Shapiro Key (Marc Studer)

Joey Shapiro Key (Marc Studer)

Key: Almost everything we know in astronomy comes from observing the light from distant objects, including the entire electromagnetic spectrum, and using telescopes that observe light that we can’t see with our eyes. Gravitational waves are an entirely new way to explore the universe. We will learn about objects that we can’t observe with light, especially black holes and systems that are obscured by gas and dust in space.

How do indigenous perspectives of the Earth and space play into your work?

Key: All ancient cultures studied the sky and knew the motions of the sun, moon and stars. It is a natural human curiosity to ask about our place in the cosmos, and we ask the same big questions today. Today we work, study and learn on traditional lands of past, present and future peoples. We are all part of the same quest to understand our universe. People lived here before us, and there will be people living here long after we are gone. It is important to acknowledge and appreciate local, regional and global residents of the places where we live and work.

Gray: Astronomy and science are a big component of life. It’s always been like that. There’s been a connection to nature. We lived in teepees back in the day, and a lot of them had star patterns on them. There were a lot of stories about the stars, and the Milky Way and the different things we see in the sky. The way we kept track of the solstices — Blackfoot people built rock formations on the prairie — was similar to Stonehenge.

Corey Gray is the lead operator of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detector in Hanford. (Keita Kawabe)

Corey Gray is the lead operator of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory detector in Hanford. (Keita Kawabe)

How have your jobs shaped the way you view the world?

Gray: The morning after we made the first detection, that’s when everything changed for me. I had been here (in Hanford) 17 years and focused on building this machine. Then, all of a sudden, we’re connected with Einstein. It really hit me. We had these two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away that collided into each other, and that was felt by this machine that I helped put together. It really boggled my mind. We could actually detect a black hole on the other side of the universe. And that connection with nature — being Native American — is what I thought about.

Key: Studying physics and astrophysics gives us a very broad perspective of humanity, our Earth as a planet, and our place in the vast cosmos. People sometimes ask if this perspective makes me feel insignificant, but I think the opposite is true — it makes us realize how special we are.

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

If you go

A free talk on “Indigenous Perspectives of Earth and Space” will be held from 6 to 6:40 p.m. at the Edmonds Center for the Arts, 410 Fourth Ave. N., Edmonds. The TED Talk-style presentation will be followed by a Q&A. Call 425-275-9595 or go to for more information.

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