Tuesday, October 3, 2017

2017 Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to LIGO Scientists

Image credit: LIGO/Caltech/MIT

The first direct observations of gravitational waves have earned the Nobel Prize in Physics for three key players in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) collaboration. Caltech professors emeritus Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish, along with MIT professor emeritus Rainer Weiss, have been named winners of the prize.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space-time originally predicted by Albert Einstein more than 100 years ago, but confirmed for the first time in a 2016 announcement from LIGO. To date, LIGO has made four detections of gravitational waves emanating from the mergers of black holes. The most recent event was also detected by the European Virgo gravitational-wave detector.

The detections ushered in a new era of gravitational-wave astronomy. LIGO and Virgo provided astronomers with an entirely new set of tools with which to probe the cosmos. Previously, all astronomy observations have relied on light—which includes X-rays, radio waves, and other types of electromagnetic radiation emanating from objects in space—or on very-high-energy particles called neutrinos and cosmic rays. Now, astronomers can learn about cosmic objects through the quivers they make in space and time.

The Nobel Prize recognizes Weiss, Barish, and Thorne for their "decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves."

"I am delighted and honored to congratulate Kip and Barry, as well as Rai Weiss of MIT, on the award this morning of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics," said Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "The first direct observation of gravitational waves by LIGO is an extraordinary demonstration of scientific vision and persistence. Through four decades of development of exquisitely sensitive instrumentation—pushing the capacity of our imaginations—we are now able to glimpse cosmic processes that were previously undetectable. It is truly the start of a new era in astrophysics."

The very idea for LIGO came to Rainer Weiss in the early 1970’s when, as associate professor of physics at MIT, he had to find a way to explain gravitational waves (a prediction of general relativity) to his students.

"I am humbled and honored to receive this award," said Barish. "The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics. Over several decades, our teams at Caltech and MIT developed LIGO into the incredibly sensitive device that made the discovery. When the signal reached LIGO from a collision of two stellar black holes that occurred 1.3 billion years ago, the 1,000-scientist-strong LIGO Scientific Collaboration was able to both identify the candidate event within minutes and perform the detailed analysis that convincingly demonstrated that gravitational waves exist."

LIGO is funded by the NSF, and operated by MIT and Caltech, which conceived and built the project. Financial support for the Advanced LIGO project was led by NSF with Germany (Max Planck Society), the U.K. (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and Australia (Australian Research Council) making significant commitments and contributions to the project. More than 1,000 scientists from around the world participate in the effort through the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

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