The team who discovered gravitational waves – ripples in space and time – have been awarded the Nobel Prize of Physics.
The waves were predicted by Einstein in his General Theory of relativity, but were not recorded for more than 100 years.
They were finally spotted in 2016 by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (Ligo) in a discovery was hailed as “the biggest scientific breakthrough” of the century by scientists.
Today the Nobel Prize was awarded to Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, all members of the Ligo team.
“Their discovery shook the world,” said Goran Hansson, the head of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, who announced the prize today.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 3, 2017
But British physicist Ronald Drever, who was a key member of the team, missed out on science’s most coveted prize, after losing his battle with dementia earlier this year.
Professor James Hough, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Physics and Astronomy, added: “Back in the 1970s, working with Ron Drever we built one of the world’s first gravitational wave detectors, instrumented with piezoelectric transducers, before moving on to designing increasingly sophisticated technology.
“I’m proud to have played a leading role in the conception and expansion of gravitational research at the University of Glasgow, and that the efforts of Glasgow researchers over the decades paid off both with the development of LIGO’s mirror-suspension technology, and now exciting roles in delivering the astrophysical results from the brand new field.”
In 1915 Einstein announced his General Theory of Relativity which suggested that huge bodies in space, like planets or black holes, have so much mass that they actually bend space and time.
It can be thought of as a giant rubber sheet with a bowling ball in the centre. Just as the ball warps the sheet, so a planet bends the fabric of space-time creating the force that we feel as gravity. Any object that comes near to the body falls towards it because of the effect.
Einstein predicted that if two massive bodies came together it would create such a huge ripple in space time that it should be detectable on Earth.
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In Feburary last year, the Ligo announced they had detected such a ripple, believed to be caused by two black holes colliding. The experiment has since been confirmed and replicated by other observatories.
Professor Mark Hannam, from Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “LIGO has already given us a string of discoveries – the first direct detection of gravitational waves, the first observation of a binary black hole system, the first observation of black holes several tens of times more massive than the sun, and arguably the first direct observation of a black hole. But the truly incredible achievement was to make the LIGO detectors.
“We already knew gravitational waves existed. We already knew black holes existed. What Weiss, Thorne and Barish did was to build the first machine sensitive enough to be able to directly measure gravitational waves.
“It took them over forty years, and the result was the most sensitive measuring device ever made. It is an incredible new tool that has only begun to transform our understanding of the universe.
“It’s very sad that one of the UK’s gravitational-wave pioneers, Ron Drever, didn’t live to see this fantastic recognition of these ground-breaking discoveries.
“However, he was alive to witness the first ever detection of gravitational waves in 2015, and I understand he was extremely thrilled.”
German-born Weiss was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize amount and Thorne and Barish will split the other half.
Prof Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, said: “The Nobel committee has apportioned credit appropriately among three leaders of the LIGO project – outstanding individuals whose contributions were distinctive and complementary.
“Weiss deserves prime credit for devising (along with the late Ron Drever) the amazingly precise laser techniques. Moreover he was ‘hands on’ and saw the project through to its success.”
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