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The Facts —
- The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has named the recipients of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics as Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne, as announced in a press release on 3 October.
- The scientists received the award “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves” in their LIGO/VIRGO Collaboration.
- Effectively, these scientists have given further validation to Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
- The release explained:
“LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is a collaborative project with over one thousand researchers from more than twenty countries. Together, they have realized a vision that is almost fifty years old. The 2017 Nobel Laureates have, with their enthusiasm and determination, each been invaluable to the success of LIGO. Pioneers Rainer Weiss and Kip S. Thorne, together with Barry C. Barish, the scientist and leader who brought the project to completion, ensured that four decades of effort led to gravitational waves finally being observed…
In the mid-1970s, Rainer Weiss had already analyzed possible sources of background noise that would disturb measurements, and had also designed a detector, a laser-based interferometer, which would overcome this noise. Early on, both Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss were firmly convinced that gravitational waves could be detected and bring about a revolution in our knowledge of the universe…
Gravitational waves spread at the speed of light, filling the universe, as Albert Einstein described in his general theory of relativity. They are always created when a mass accelerates, like when an ice-skater pirouettes or a pair of black holes rotate around each other. Einstein was convinced it would never be possible to measure them. The LIGO project’s achievement was using a pair of gigantic laser interferometers to measure a change thousands of times smaller than an atomic nucleus, as the gravitational wave passed the Earth.”
- The award will be divided with one half to Weiss and the other half shared equally between Barish and Thorne.
- The total prize is 9 million Swedish krona, which equates to roughly $1,109,194 US.
Significance to Science —
- Moderator Brian Greene explained at the World Science Festival on 4 June 2016 the importance of Weiss, Barish, and Thorne’s work, saying their discovery of the ability to detect and measure the universe’s gravitational waves “is the kind of achievement that happens maybe a few times a century in fundamental science.” He added:
“With gravitational waves, there was never really any doubt after 1950, 1960, that these ripples in the fabric of space were a real feature of [Albert] Einstein’s general theory of relativity, but there definitely was controversy as to whether we would ever have the capacity to catch one of these waves.”
- Scientists say “gravitational waves will be used to explore the universe like never before,” as if the world of science was granted an additional sense through Weiss, Barish and Thorne’s work, with which to explore the universe.
- With this honor, Weiss, Barish, and Thorne join 203 other individuals who have received the Nobel Prize in Physics since 1901.
- Albert Einstein first predicted the universe’s gravitational waves a little over 100 years ago, according to a press release from the Nobel Prize Foundation.
- The waves, which came from a collision between two black holes, took 1.3 billion years to arrive at the LIGO detector in the US.
- They were observed for the very first time with the help of Weiss, Barish, and Thorne on 14 September 2015.
- The release said:
“The signal [from the waves] was extremely weak when it reached Earth, but is already promising a revolution in astrophysics. Gravitational waves are an entirely new way of observing the most violent events in space and testing the limits of our knowledge…
So far all sorts of electromagnetic radiation and particles, such as cosmic rays or neutrinos, have been used to explore the universe. However, gravitational waves are direct testimony to disruptions in spacetime itself. This is something completely new and different, opening up unseen worlds. A wealth of discoveries awaits those who succeed in capturing the waves and interpreting their message.”
How the LIGO/VIRGO Collaboration Works —
- There are two detectors in the LIGO system, located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington. In order to verify that a gravitational wave passed through the Earth, it must be detected at both sites.
- The LIGO site explains how an interferometer works:
“An interferometer like LIGO consists of two perpendicular ‘arms’ (in LIGO’s case each one is 4km long!) along which a laser beam is shone and reflected by mirrors at each end…
When a gravitational wave passes by, the stretching and squashing of space causes the arms of the interferometer alternately to lengthen and shorten, one getting longer while the other gets shorter and then vice-versa…
As the interferometers’ arms change lengths, the laser beams traveling through the arms travel different distances – which means that the two beams are no longer ‘in step’ and what we call an interference pattern is produced. (This is why we call the LIGO instruments ‘interferometers’.)…
Now the effect of this change in arm length is very small — for a typical passing gravitational wave we expect it to be about 1/10,000th the width of a proton! But LIGO’s interferometers are so sensitive that they can measure even such tiny amounts. LIGO scientists can look for the pattern of arm length changes that we expect from different types of gravitational wave source: if they see the pattern, they’ll know a gravitational wave has passed by!”
The Nobel Laureates —
- Rainer Weiss was born 1932 in Berlin, Germany.
- Weiss earned a PhD in 1962 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as a BS in Physics from MIT in 1955.
- Weiss is currently a Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at MIT.
- Barry C Barish was born 1936 in Omaha, Nebraska.
- Barish earned a PhD in 1962 from the University of California, Berkeley, and a BA from the same institution in 1957.
- Barish holds the titles of Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus, and Professor of High-Energy Physics, Emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology (CIT) in Pasadena, California.
- Kip S Thorne was born 1940 in Logan, Utah.
- Thorne earned a PhD in 1965 from Princeton University in New Jersey, an AM in Physics from Princeton in 1963 and a BS in Physics from CIT in 1962.
- Thorne’s present position is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, at CIT.
Stephanie Haney contributed to this report.