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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 Nobel Prize for physics is going, unsurprisingly, to three people who represent the hundreds of researchers behind the first direct detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO.

Some of those researchers work at the LIGO detector in Hanford, Wash.

Like the Nobel-winning discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, LIGO’s discovery was the result of decades of work, undertaken with the expectation of finding evidence for an exotic phenomenon that was long predicted.

But because of the rules for the scientific Nobel Prizes, no more than three physicists could be given a share of the $1.1 million award.

The Nobel laurels are going to MIT’s Rainer Weiss and Caltech’s Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, who are recognized as ringleaders for the $500 million LIGO project.

Nobel physics laureates
Caltech’s Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, along with MIT’s Rainer Weiss, are this year’s Nobel laureates in physics, thanks to their work on the LIGO effort to detect gravitational waves. (LIGO / Nobel Prize Photo)

In a statement issued after today’s prize announcement, Thorne acknowledged that their success was due to far more than the efforts of three people.

“The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO’s noisy data and extracted the waves’ information,” he said.

Thorne said it was “unfortunate that, due to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize has to go to no more than three people, when our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand.”

Weiss seconded that sentiment during a news conference, saying that the Nobel “recognizes the work of a thousand people.”

LIGO was considered the odds-on favorite for this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, but the laureates didn’t get the official word until early today. Barish said he received the Nobel call on his cellphone around 2:45 a.m. PT, just before the public announcement, and felt a “complicated mixture between being thrilled and being humbled.”

The initial detection, made in September 2015 and announced in February 2016, served as the clearest confirmation of Albert Einstein’s prediction a century earlier that gravitational waves should exist.

Gravitational waves are ripples in the fabric of spacetime. In its announcement of the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the waves “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 that the waves were too subtle to be measured, but LIGO can pick up the signals when they’re given off by the most massive clashes in the universe.

To detect distortions in spacetime, LIGO’s scientists designed two sets of L-shaped tunnels, each stretching out in a perfectly straight line for 2.5 miles. One set was built at Hanford, and the other at Livingston, La., to ensure a double-check on any results.

Laser beams and mirrors were installed in each tunnel, arranged so that the beams’ interference patterns could register changes in spatial dimensions to the accuracy of far less than the width of a proton.

Over the years, LIGO’s teams have improved the accuracy of the apparatus, and the first confirmed detection was registered soon after a major upgrade in 2015.

That event was traced to the merger of two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years from Earth, during which an amount of mass roughly equal to three of our suns was converted to gravitational-wave energy in accordance with Einstein’s E=mc2 equation.

Three more black hole mergers have been detected since then, including one that received added confirmation from the Virgo gravitational-wave detector in Italy and was announced just last week.

In awarding the Nobel, the Swedish academy said the study of gravitational waves promises “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,” the academy said.

With three detectors now up to speed and more on the way, physicists are hoping to match up the gravitational-wave view of the universe with the pictures they get from other observing techniques that make use of the electromagnetic spectrum and particle detectors.

“This is something completely new and different, opening up unseen worlds,” the academy said.

MIT’s Weiss was given half of the prize, with the other half shared by Caltech’s Barish and Thorne.

The Nobel Prize for physics follows other honors given to the LIGO collaboration, including the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics and the Breakthrough Prize. Those prizes may be nearly as rich or even richer in terms of dollars and cents, but for better or worse, the Nobel nevertheless serves as the apex of scientific recognition.

“We celebrate today the creation of gravitational astronomy,” Thorne declared at a Caltech news conference.

University of Washington astrophysicist Krishna Venkateswara, a member of the collaboration, told GeekWire in an email that he was “very proud that the award went to the founders of LIGO, who have inspired the rest of us to pursue this wonderful science.”

“New sources of gravitational waves, improved sky localization, electromagnetic counterparts and better resolution of gravitational-wave signals will enable a plethora of discoveries in astrophysics and fundamental gravitational physics,” Venkateswara said. “This sounds cliched, but I really think we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we study and understand the universe!”

Joey Shapiro Key, a fellow physicist and LIGO collaborator at UW-Bothell, agreed that it’s “an exciting day for LIGO and for gravitational wave astronomy.”

“The LIGO detectors are currently being upgraded and there will be many more wonderful discoveries to come,” she told GeekWire in an email. “We look forward to continuing to explore our universe! I think this will become one of the most popular Nobel Prize awards.”

The week’s first Nobel announcement came on Monday, when the prize for medicine or physiology was awarded to three American biologists for their study of the genetic roots of biological clocks. One of the laureates, Jeffrey Hall, received his Ph.D. from UW.

The chemistry prize is due to be announced on Wednesday, followed by the literature prize on Thursday, the peace prize on Friday, and the economics prize next Monday.

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