LIGO team behind gravitational-wave discovery awarded Nobel Prize

3 Oct 2017

Image: Festa/Shutterstock

Few will be surprised with the news that the key players behind the discovery of gravitational waves have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2017.

For their contribution to the first detection of gravitational waves, Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne have been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2017.

By far one of the favourites for the prize, the award was split between the three, with one half going to Weiss and the other half jointly awarded to Barish and Thorne.

Previously described as opening a new window into the universe, the detection of gravitational waves in 2015 confirmed a century-old theory predicted by Albert Einstein, and now allows us to observe the universe’s most violent events as ripples in spacetime.

The breakthrough came with the construction of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a collaborative project with more than 1,000 researchers from more than 20 countries.

With the highly sensitive equipment up and running, LIGO was able to pick up the first gravitational wave from a collision between two black holes 1.3bn years ago in deep space.

Two years later, we have seen the fourth example of a gravitational wave, with predictions that we could be finding them weekly by the end of 2018.

Weiss’s research into the phenomenon dates back to the mid-1970s. He had already analysed possible sources of background noise that would disturb measurements, and also designed a detector (a precursor to LIGO), which would overcome this noise.

Even prior to this time, both Thorne and Weiss were firmly convinced that gravitational waves could be detected and bring about a revolution in our knowledge of the universe.

It was in collaboration with Barish, the scientist and leader of the LIGO project who saw it to completion, that their decades of research finally led to irrefutable proof.

In explaining why the three scientists deserved the honour, the Nobel Prize Committee said: “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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic