Trio wins physics Nobel Prize for gravitational wave detection

Prize comes quickly for LIGO masterminds

Weiss, Thorne, Barish

LIGO PIONEERS  Rainer Weiss of MIT (left), and Kip Thorne (middle) and Barry Barish (right), both of Caltech, won the Nobel Prize in physics for their leadership roles in the LIGO experiment.

From left: Bryce Vickmark; Caltech; R. Hahn/Wikimedia Commons

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Subtle cosmic vibrations kicked up by swirling black holes have captured the public imagination — and the minds of the physics Nobel Prize committee members, too.

Three scientists who laid the groundwork for the first direct detection of gravitational waves have won the Nobel Prize in physics. Rainer Weiss of MIT, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of Caltech, will share the 9-million-Swedish-kronor (about $1.1 million) prize, with half going to Weiss and the remainder split between Thorne and Barish.

Though researchers often wait decades for Nobel recognition, the observation of gravitational waves was so monumental that the scientists were honored less than two years after the discovery’s announcement.

“These detections were so compelling and earth shattering…. Why wait?” says Clifford Will of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not directly involved with the discovery. “It’s fabulous. Absolutely fabulous.”

Weiss, Thorne and Barish are pioneers of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or LIGO. On February 11, 2016, LIGO scientists announced they had spotted gravitational waves produced by a pair of merging black holes. This first-ever detection generated a frenzy of excitement among physicists and garnered front-page headlines around the world.

LIGO’s observation of gravitational waves directly confirmed a 100-year-old prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity — that rapidly accelerating massive objects stretch and squeeze spacetime, producing ripples that travel outward from the source (SN: 3/5/16, p. 22).

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RIPPLES TO RICHES The Nobel Prize was awarded to a trio of physicists for the detection of gravitational waves produced by two merging black holes, shown in a computer simulation. C. Henze/NASA

“If Einstein was still alive, it would be absolutely wonderful to go to him and tell him about the discovery. He would be very pleased, I’m sure of it,” Weiss said during a news conference at MIT a few hours after he got word of the win. “But then to tell him what the discovery was, that it was a black hole, he would have been absolutely flabbergasted because he didn’t believe in them.”

As enthusiastic team members clad in LIGO-themed T-shirts celebrated the discovery, Weiss stressed that the discovery was a group effort. “I’m a symbol of that. It’s not all on my shoulders, this thing,” he said, citing the large collaboration of scientists whose work led up to LIGO’s detection.

Physicists anticipate that LIGO will spark an entirely new field of astronomy, in which scientists survey the universe by feeling for its tremors. “It will allow us to see the parts of the universe that were not revealed to us before,” says LIGO team member Carlos Lousto of the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

LIGO’s first incarnation, which officially began collecting data in 2002 and ran intermittently until 2010, yielded no hints of gravitational waves. After years of upgrades, the souped-up detectors, known as Advanced LIGO, began searching for spacetime ripples in 2015. Almost as soon as the detectors were turned on — even before scientific data-taking had formally begun — scientists detected the minuscule undulations of their first black hole collision. Those ripples, spotted on September 14, 2015, journeyed to Earth from 1.3 billion light-years away, where they were produced by two colossal black holes that spiraled inward and merged into one (SN: 3/5/16, p. 6).

Quivers from those converging black holes, when converted into an audio signal, made a tell-tale sound called a “chirp,” reminiscent of a bird’s cry. The particulars of that signature reveal details of the collision. “The beauty of the symphony is in what you can extract from the tiny wiggles, or the wiggles on tops of wiggles, in that signal,” Thorne said at an Oct. 3 news conference at Caltech.

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SPACETIME SHIMMY Gravitational waves, explained here, garnered the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. These tiny undulations in the fabric of spacetime are set off by violent cosmic events, such as the collision of two black holes. H. Thompson

Since that first detection, scientists have observed three more black hole collisions. And additional gravitational ripples may already be in the bag: It’s rumored that LIGO scientists have also detected a smashup of neutron stars (SN Online: 8/25/17). In fact, Weiss teased an announcement to come on October 16.

An astounding feat of engineering, LIGO consists of two enormous L-shaped detectors that stretch across the wooded landscape of Livingston, La., and the desert of Hanford, Wash. Each detector boasts two 4-kilometer-long arms through which laser light bounces back and forth between mirrors.

Gravitational waves passing through a detector stretch one arm while shortening the other. LIGO compares the arms’ sizes using the laser light to measure length differences a tiny fraction of the size of a proton. Gravitational waves should produce signals in the two distant detectors nearly simultaneously, helping scientists to rule out spurious signals that can be caused by events as mundane as a truck bouncing along nearby.

“LIGO is probably one of the best and most amazing instruments ever built by mankind,” Barish said at the Caltech news conference. But building it was a risky endeavor: No one had previously attempted anything like it, and no one could say for sure whether the effort would succeed. “What’s fundamental is you have to be willing to take risks to do great things,” Barish said.

In August, LIGO’s two detectors teamed up with the similarly designed Virgo detector near Pisa, Italy (SN Online: 8/1/17). The latest gravitational wave sighting, made on August 14, showed up in all three detectors almost simultaneously, which allowed scientists to pinpoint the region of space in which the black holes resided more precisely than ever before (SN Online: 9/27/17).

Weiss spent decades on the project, beginning with nascent scribbles on scraps of paper and early prototypes. In the 1960s, Weiss came up with the idea for a laser gravitational wave detector while teaching a class on general relativity. (Other researchers had independently proposed the technique as well.) He refined that idea and built a small, prototype detector, establishing the basic blueprint that would eventually evolve into LIGO.

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Inspired by a conversation with Weiss, Thorne, who had been studying theoretical aspects of gravitational waves, assembled a team to work on the technique at Caltech in the ’70s. (Thorne was a 1958 semifinalist in the Science Talent Search, a program of the Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.)

Another LIGO founder, Ronald Drever, died in March. Drever, who had been working on gravitational wave detectors at the University of Glasgow, joined Thorne at Caltech in 1979. Weiss and Drever each worked individually on prototypes, before Weiss officially teamed up with Thorne and Drever in 1984 to create LIGO (SN: 3/5/16, p. 24). Drever did live to hear of the first detection, Will says, but “it’s sad that he didn’t live to see it all.”

Barish joined the project later, becoming director of LIGO in 1994. He stayed in that role for more than 10 years, elevating LIGO from scientists’ daydreams into reality. Barish oversaw construction and commissioning of the detectors, as well as initial gravitational wave searches. “He entered the experiment in a crucial moment, when it was necessary to bring the experiment to a different level, make it a big collaboration,” says Alessandra Buonanno of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany.

Speculation that LIGO would nab a Nobel began as soon as the discovery was announced. So the collaboration was not surprised by the honor. “We were certainly expecting this to happen,” says LIGO team member Manuela Campanelli of the Rochester Institute of Technology. Still, the lack of surprise didn’t dampen the mood of festivity. “I feel in a dream,” says Buonanno.

LIGO and Virgo are currently in a shutdown period while scientists tinker with the detectors to improve their sensitivity. The gravitational wave hunt will resume next year. Besides black hole mergers and neutron star smashups, in the future, scientists might also spot waves from an exploding star, known as a supernova. Upcoming detectors might sense trembles generated in the Big Bang, providing a glimpse of the universe’s beginnings.

And scientists may even find new phenomena that they haven’t predicted. “I await expectantly some huge surprises in the coming years,” Thorne said.

This story was updated twice October 3, 2017, to include reaction to the announcement and comments by the newly minted Nobel laureates.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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