Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for Work on Discovery of Gravitational Waves

From left: Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne, the architects and leaders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory.
Molly Riley/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for the discovery of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago but had never been directly seen.

In announcing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy called it “a discovery that shook the world.”

In February 2016, when an international collaboration of physicists and astronomers announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of massive black holes a billion light years away, it mesmerized the world. The work validated Einstein’s longstanding prediction that space-time can shake like a bowlful of jelly when massive objects swing their weight around, and it has put astronomers on intimate terms with the deepest levels of physical reality, of a void booming and rocking with invisible cataclysms.

Why did they win?

Dr. Weiss, 85, Dr. Thorne, 77, and Dr. Barish, 81, were the architects and leaders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, the instrument that detected the gravitational waves, and a sister organization the LIGO Scientific Collaboration of more than a thousand scientists who analyzed the data.

Dr. Weiss will receive half of the prize of 9 million Swedish Kronor and Dr. Thorne and Dr. Barish will split the other half.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, pronounced in 1916, suggested that matter and energy would warp the geometry of space-time the way a heavy sleeper sags a mattress, producing the effect we call gravity. His equations described a universe in which space and time were dynamic. Space-time could stretch and expand, tear and collapse into black holes — objects so dense that not even light could escape them. The equations predicted, somewhat to his displeasure, that the universe was expanding from what we now call the Big Bang, and it also predicted that the motions of massive objects like black holes or other dense remnants of dead stars would ripple space-time with gravitational waves.

These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Dr. Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors. In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington.

Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.

The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”

The foundation, which would wind up spending $1 billion over the next 40 years on the project, ordered the two groups to merge. The plan that emerged was to build a pair of L-shaped antennas, one in Hanford, Wash., and the other in Livingston, La., with laser light bouncing along 2.5-mile-long arms in the world’s biggest vacuum tunnels to monitor the shape of space.

In 1987, the original three-headed leadership of Drs. Weiss, Drever and Thorne was abandoned for a single director, Rochus Vogt of Caltech. Dr. Drever was subsequently forced out of the detector project. But LIGO still foundered until Dr. Barish, a Caltech professor with a superb pedigree in managing Big Science projects, joined in 1994 and then became director. He reorganized the project so that it would be built in successively more sensitive phases, and he created a worldwide LIGO Scientific Collaboration of astronomers and physicists to study and analyze the data.

“Without him there would have been no discovery,” said Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize-winning theorist now at Boston University.

The most advanced version of LIGO had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Dennis Overbye