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LIGO Hanford
The beamlines for the LIGO detector site at Hanford stretch out across the desert terrain of southeastern Washington. Each arm of the L-shaped detector is 2.5 miles long. (Credit: LIGO)

This year’s revelations about gravitational waves are certain to win someone a Nobel Prize someday, but an even richer prize has already been awarded to the scientists behind the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO.

Caltech’s Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, along with MIT’s Rainer Weiss, are among the winners of a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, worth $3 million. Those three founders of the $1.1 billion LIGO project will share $1 million of the prize. The remaining $2 million will be divvied up among the 1,012 authors of February’s research paper detailing the gravitational wave detection.

The announcement was made on Monday by the prize selection committee.

Over the past five years, Breakthrough Prizes have been given out to researchers in life sciences, physics and mathematics. The founders of the prize program include such billionaire tech luminaries as Google’s Sergei Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Russian investor Yuri Milner. (Milner is also behind the recently announced Breakthrough Starshot mission to Alpha Centauri.)

Special Breakthrough Prizes can be awarded at any time – for example, to honor the discoverers of the Higgs boson at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider. Although the prize doesn’t have as much tradition behind it as the Nobels do, it offers more money up front. The current monetary value of each Nobel Prize is just a shade under $1 million.

This time, the Breakthrough Prize has a Pacific Northwest angle: One of the 2.5-mile-wide LIGO detectors is at Hanford in Eastern Washington. The other is almost 2,000 miles away, near Livingston, La.

Last September, both sites detected the subtle signature of a massive gravitational disturbance that occurred more than 1 billion light-years away. The event is thought to be the merger of two black holes, although there’s been some question about that lately.

LIGO’s detection provided the clearest evidence for the existence of gravitational waves – that is, ripples in the fabric of spacetime that spread through the universe at the speed of light. A century ago, Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted that such waves should exist, but until this year, there were lingering questions about the claim.

British physicist Stephen Hawking, who won a Special Breakthrough Prize in 2013, hailed this week’s award.

“This discovery has huge significance: firstly, as evidence for general relativity and its predictions of black hole interactions, and secondly as the beginning of a new astronomy that will reveal the universe through a different medium,” Hawking said in Monday’s announcement. “The LIGO team richly deserves the Special Breakthrough Prize.”

Among the researchers sharing in the honors are D. Barker, J. Bartlett, M.A. Barton, J. Bergman, R.M. Blair, F. Clara, D. Cook, J.C. Driggers, S.E. Dwyer, C. Gray, J. Hanks, K. Izumi, K. Kawabe, N. Kijbunchoo, P.J. King, J.S. Kissel, M. Landry, B.M. Levine, R. McCarthy, G. Mendell, E. Merith, D. Moraru, G. Moreno, J. Oberling, F.J. Raab, H. Radkins, C.M. Reed, K. Ryan, T. Sadecki, V. Sandberg, R.L. Savage, A. Sevigny, T. Shaffer, D. Sigg, P. Thomas, C. Vorvick, J. Warner, B. Weaver, C. Wilkinson and J. Worden of LIGO Hanford Observatory in Richland, Wash.; S. Bose, B.R. Hall, R.M. Magee and N. Mazumder of Washington State University; J.E. Brau, R. Frey, S. Karki, J.R. Palamos, R. Quitzow-James, V.J. Roma, P. Schale, R.M.S. Schofield and D. Talukder of the University of Oregon; G.H. Ogin of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.; and K. Venkateswara of the University of Washington.

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