Physics Nobel awarded for gravitational waves discovery

Lena Tucker
October 4, 2017

Rainer Weiss, 85, from MIT, will be awarded half of the $1.1 million prize.

Thorne and Barry C. Barish were members of the LIGO project (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) which on 14 September 2015 detected gravitational waves for the first time in history, proving Albert Einstein correct 100 years after he predicted their existence in his famous theory of general relativity.

Gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, and since 2015, has been detected on four other occasions, most recently in August. Many scientists thought the explosions of stars would create the best waves for detection, but Thorne said that black holes or neutron stars rotating around one another would make the best sources for study. The signals from gravitational waves are extremely weak when they reach Earth and therefore require exquisitely accurate measurement. Although Albert Einstein never imagined it possible to measure gravitational waves, the LIGO project was able to achieve this by using a pair of big laser interferometers to measure a change as the gravitational wave passed the Earth.

The laser-interferometric gravity wave observatory, known for its English abbreviation LIGO, is a joint project of over a thousand scientists from over 20 countries that monitor the manifestations of these waves.

Three American physicists have won the Nobel prize in physics for the discovery of spacetime gravitational waves.

"The first ever observation of a gravitational wave was a milestone - a window on the Universe", said Olga Botner, from the Academy, speaking at the Conference.

On Wednesday, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry will be awarded while Thursday and Friday will see the announcement for the Prizes for Literature and the Nobel Peace Prize.

Weiss won half of the $1.1 million prize, with Barish and Thorne sharing the other half.

■ 2011: Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess (US) and Brian Schmidt (US-Australian) for discovering the accelerating expansion of the universe. Weiss taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It took months for the scientists to convince themselves that they had in fact heard gravitational waves, he said.

Professor Sheila Rowan, Director of the University of Glasgow's Institute for Gravitational Research, was one of the UK's leads on LIGO and welcomed the Nobel committee's decision.

Glasgow University physicists have been working to prove the existence of gravitational waves for almost 50 years and helped develop sensors used by Ligo.

From left to right: Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish.

Who will win a Nobel physics prize is often anyone's guess; the selection process is notoriously secretive. "I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about the recognition of individuals when so much of this was a team effort", he says. The beams are used to detect infinitesimal changes in the distance between mirrors at the ends of the arms that are caused when gravitational waves pass by the detectors.

Past year the Nobel prize in physics became a British scientists David Taules, Duncan, GILDAN and Michael Costells.

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