The discovery of gravitational waves was a breakthrough that confirmed Albert Einstein’s theory which the physicist predicted a century ago. Now, the three American physicists behind the discovery of the ripples in the fabric of spacetime have won the Nobel prize in physics for the same.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm has announced one half of the 9m Swedish kronor (£825,000) prize for Rainer Weiss, while half of the price will be shared by Kip Thorne and Barry Barish.
Weiss, Thorne and Barish played a leading role in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or Ligo, experiment. In September 2015, the first historic observation of gravitational waves was made by Ligo.
Weiss, who is an emeritus professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an experimentalist, played a major role in contributing to the concept, design, funding and eventual construction of LIGO.
Kip Thorne, who is the Feynman professor of theoretical physics at California Institute of Technology, is a theorist. He predicted how the gravitational wave detected would actually look like and how that signal within the data could be identified.
The credit for getting the experiment off the ground goes to Barry Barish, a former particle physicist at California Institute of Technology (now emeritus professor). Barish took over as the second director of LIGO in 1994. At that time, the project was at risk of being cancelled. However, things turned around, thanks to Barish, who saw it through to construction in 1999 and its first measurements three years later.
In the end, experimentalists created one of the most sensitive detectors on Earth, while theorists figured out what a signal emerging from the collision of two black holes would actually look like.
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Less than 18 months after the detection of gravitational waves for the first time, Scottish physicist Ronald Drever, who played a leading role in building LIGO, died in March due to dementia.
The Nobel prize is not normally awarded posthumously.
Weiss described receiving the phone call as “really wonderful”. “I view this more as a thing that recognises the work of about 1,000 people. I hate to tell you but it’s as long as 40 years of people thinking about this, trying to make a detection … and slowly but surely getting the technology together to do it,” he said during a press conference.
“It took us a long time – almost two months – to convince ourselves that we had seen something from the outside that was truly a gravitational wave,” he said.