Saturday, August 12, 2017

Gravitational Waves as Astronomical Tools: LIGO Team Members Awarded 2018 Berkeley Prize

The collision of two black holes holes—a tremendously powerful event detected for the first time ever by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO—is seen in this still from a computer simulation. LIGO detected gravitational waves, or ripples in space and time generated as the black holes spiraled in toward each other, collided, and merged. This simulation shows how the merger would appear to our eyes if we could somehow travel in a spaceship for a closer look. It was created by solving equations from Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity using the LIGO data. Image Credit: SXS, the Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes (SXS) project (

The importance of the discovery of gravitational waves is being more widely recognized by the scientific community. Recently, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) has awarded the 2018 Berkeley Prize to three researchers for their leadership roles in the development of the Advanced LIGO detectors, which have opened a new window on the universe. This decision marks the significance of gravitational waves for future research in the field of astronomy.

AAS announced in late July that Dennis C. Coyne (Caltech), Peter K. Fritschel (MIT), and David H. Shoemaker (MIT) will share the 2018 Lancelot M. Berkeley - New York Community Trust Prize for Meritorious Work in Astronomy. This trio of researchers represents the team that developed the second-generation detectors for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and used them to detect oscillations in the fabric of space-time.

“It is of course a personal pleasure, and I am very happy they chose the three persons they did — we worked very closely and in a complementary fashion to guide the project to a successful conclusion,” Shoemaker told

Shoemaker is the title Senior Research Scientist at MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. Moreover, he led the Advanced LIGO team and serves as Spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), which includes nearly 1,200 scientists from more than 100 institutions and 18 countries worldwide.

“The LSC is charged to ‘do the science’ — instrument science as well as astrophysics — and the LIGO Lab (part of the LSC) has the ‘niche’ responsibility to make projects happen, maintain the observatories, and generally manage the machinery that makes us an observatory. That is a great complement to the approximately 100 other groups in the LSC who work to solve problems on many scales to get the science done,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker underlined how challenging was the development of the new LIGO detectors. It required a lot of work from the team and it cost them a lot of stress few times when things did not go as planned. He noted that people participating in the project were fantastic and the dedication of everyone involved, including technicians, junior engineers, administrative staff, and others, was phenomenal.

Left to right: Dennis Coyne, Peter Fritschel, and David Shoemaker
Left to right: Dennis Coyne, Peter Fritschel, and David Shoemaker

“I would like also to mention Carol Wilkinson, who served as Project Manager for much of the project. It is not easy to spend more than 200 million dollars legally, efficiently, and to communicate that to the funding agencies in review panels. Carol did all that and more,” Shoemaker said.

He pointed out that the award shows the work done by the LIGO team was acknowledged by astronomical community as the Berkeley Prize is given by a society of professional astronomers.

“Most important for me though is the source of the prize: the American Astronomical Society. I could not be happier that the organization sponsoring the prize is one led by and serving the astronomy community — it shows that the gravitational-wave field is starting to be considered an astronomical tool and not just a demonstration of general relativity,” Shoemaker said.

Gravitational waves are 'ripples' in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the universe. So far, the LIGO team has announced three confirmed detections of cosmic gravitational waves, all from merging pairs of massive black holes.

“Einstein’s General Theory of Gravitation makes predictions that are, as far as we can tell, exactly right, even in the case of pure warped space-time. That is astonishing. Add to that the fact that there are bigger stellar-mass black holes than most anyone predicted, and you have a new field,” Shoemaker concluded.

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