Two Caltech researchers were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering gravitational waves, confirming a prediction made by Albert Einstein when he published his theory of general relativity in 1916.
Kip S. Thorne and Barry C. Barish of Caltech with Rainer Weiss of MIT received the award. Thorne and Barish will share half of the $1.1 million prize and Weiss will receive the other half.
"The creation of gravitational astronomy is a tremendous achievement. But it's not Barry and I who really deserves the major credit for this." Throne said at a press conference held by Caltech in Pasadena on Tuesday.
In September 2015, the three scientists, together with a team of over a thousand scientists and engineers, accomplished the first ever direct observation of ripples that distort the fabric of space-time. The detected ripples, also known as gravitational waves, came from the collision of two black holes from 1.3 billion light years away. They published their discoveries and analysis in 2016.
Since Einstein first predicted the existence of gravitational waves as the result of movements of massive objects like black holes, scientists have been confused for decades on how to detect the waves. The ripples are incredibly weak and faint to be detected. Former observatory approaches including lights and cosmic rays all ended up with failures.
In the 1990s, led by Weiss, Thorne and Ronald W.P. Drever, MIT and Caltech collaborated to use a brand-new technique to detect the waves – laser interferometry. They built the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), which consists of two huge detectors in Hanford, Wash., and Livingston, La. When gravitational waves pass by, the sophisticated detectors are able to identify any distortion they cause on two identical laser lights. The waves are invisible, but the distortions demonstrate the existence of them.
"The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics." said Barish.
The two scientists thanked the National Science Foundation for providing funding throughout the process and thanked all the members of LIGO for their commitment to the project.