Discoverers of gravitational waves win physics Nobel Prize

Ripples in space-time theorized by Einstein had eluded scientists for a century.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Oct 05, 2017
Three scientists who detected gravitational waves for the first time ever were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for physics.

Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, both of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), first detected the ripples in space-time theorized by Albert Einstein in September 2015 via the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), an instrument they pioneered.

LIGO is composed of two separate detectors, one in Washington State and the other in Louisiana. Each is shaped like the letter L, with two arms extending 2.48 miles (4 km) that house identical laser beams.

Passage of a gravitational wave through Earth compresses the laser in one of the arms while expanding its counterpart in the other arm.

However, the changes triggered by gravitational waves are extremely tiny, as small as one-thousandth the diameter of a nucleon--a proton or neutron.

"You have first to keep all the distortions out and then to increase the sensitivity of the measurement system," explained Walter Winkler, a physicist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany who has worked on this project since the 1970s in a statement to the website Live Science.

Scientists have sought to detect gravitational waves for 100 years but failed to find proof of their existence until the 2015 discovery.

This is partly because gravitational waves are very faint and small by the time they reach Earth.

According to Einstein, collisions of massive objects in the universe, such as black holes or neutron stars, stretch and compress space-time, producing these ripples.

A merger of two black holes converted approximately three solar masses of material into gravitational waves in less than one second during the event detected in 2015.

That merger actually occurred about 1.3 billion years ago.

While more than 1,000 scientists authored the paper on the discovery, published in the journal Physical Review Letters in February 2016, Nobel rules state the prize can be shared by no more than three people.

In announcing the award, the Nobel Committee publicly recognized the large number of researchers involved in the discovery.

The $1.1 million (9 million Swedish krona) award will be divided between Rainer, who will receive half, and Barish and Thorne, who will split the other half.

Since the initial discovery, LIGO has detected gravitational waves three more times, and a new detector in Italy, VIRGO, also detected them.

"This year's prize is about a discovery that shook the world," noted Thors Hans Hansson, a physicist who announced the award from Stockholm, Sweden.

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