2017 Nobel Prize in Physics: Gravitational Waves

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded earlier today to Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne for their groundbreaking work that lead to the discovery of gravitational waves.

Left to right, Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne. Credit: Nobel Media.

Left to right, Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish, and Kip S. Thorne. Credit: Nobel Media.

Weiss and Thorne are pioneers of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), one of the largest scientific experiments ever assembled. Unfortunately, their co-founder colleague Ronald Drever sadly died in March, and Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. Barish guided the project to fruition.

This award hardly came as a surprise--this monumental discovery was the clear frontrunner for many predictions. Here’s what we said in our prediction:

Aerial view of the LIGO interferometer at Hanford, Washington. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab.

Aerial view of the LIGO interferometer at Hanford, Washington. Credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Lab.

LIGO is a pair of huge interferometers, located in rural parts of Washington and Louisiana. An interferometer splits a beam of (laser) light into two perpendicular beams, then bounces them back and lets them interact on a photodetector, creating an interference pattern.

“This technique is used to measure very tiny changes in distances for many different types of scientific experiments. The interferometer was invented by Michelson for his famous eponymous experiment that disproved the luminiferous ether and set the speed of light.

“Each LIGO installation has two 2.5-mile-long perpendicular arms, which are so big that they can detect the bending of spacetime itself to the tune of 1/10,000th the width of a proton! In September of 2015, the installations both recorded a change in the interference pattern that corresponded to the detection of gravity waves for the first time in human history, confirming predictions set out by Einstein in 1915.”

Congratulations to the Weiss, Barish, Thorne, and the 1000+ scientists and engineers that are part of the LIGO family! You deserve it!


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Fedor Kossakovski is a production assistant for Miles O'Brien Productions.