Gravitational Wave Pioneers Win 2017 Physics Nobel

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne share Nobel Prize for research culminating in LIGO detection of gravitational waves

COLLEGE PARK, MD, October 3, 2017 — Three physicists who pioneered the theories and experiments that ultimately led to the recent and stunning detection of gravitational waves emitted by colliding black holes have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Prior to sharing in the Nobel Prize, Rainer Weiss (MIT, APS Fellow) and Kip Thorne (Caltech, APS Fellow) had already been recognized with American Physical Society (APS) prizes. Weiss shared in the APS Einstein Prize in 2007, along with the late Ronald Drever, for their development of gravitational wave detectors. Thorne won the APS Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize in 1996 both for his theoretical work on gravitational radiation and for advocating for the development of experiments including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that detected gravitational waves for the first time late in 2015. Barry Barish (Caltech, APS Fellow) was elected to serve as president of the APS in 2011.

“LIGO is among the grand physics experiments that rely on the struggle and perseverance of thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, and staff,” said APS President Laura Greene. “In a very real way, this prize belongs to the many people who have contributed immeasurable efforts to design, build, and commission one of the wonders of contemporary physics. A project of this scale must begin with extraordinary visionaries like Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss who, over forty years ago, were bold enough to sketch out interferometers of a magnitude that was almost unbelievable at the time. A great vision, however, requires equally great leadership to achieve. Since 1994, Barry Barish has been instrumental in directing the construction of the LIGO facilities and establishing the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. These three physicists, along with a multitude of collaborators and supporters, have created a truly amazing device that allows us to see the universe in a whole new way.”

Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics for indirect observations of gravitational waves in the evolution of binary star orbits. At the time, however, few scientists believed it would ever be possible to directly measure the waves, due to the weakness of gravitational forces. Visionaries, including this year’s Laureates, were vindicated when the LIGO detectors revealed a stunningly clear gravitational chirp emitted by a pair of merging black holes on September 14, 2015.

“Weiss, Thorne, and Barish had the tenacity to slog through decades of work to finally get the sensitivity needed to directly observe an extreme binary,” said APS Treasurer James Hollenhorst. “I worked on the Stanford gravity wave detector in the 1970’s and was discouraged about the prospects of an observation in my lifetime. When the rumors were circulating about LIGO, I expected to see a three-sigma blip above the noise floor and detailed statistical arguments to convince us that it must have been a pulse of gravitational radiation. I never expected to see the beautiful waveforms, just as predicted. In one observation, it was immediately clear that the age of gravitational radiation astronomy had truly begun.”

Several key publications providing the basis for this year’s physics Nobel have appeared in the Physical Review journals published by the American Physical Society, including presentations of the first four gravitational wave detections at LIGO. The APS has made the papers available free-to-read to the general public.

Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger
B. P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration)
Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 061102 – Published 11 February 2016
Read Paper

GW151226: Observation of Gravitational Waves from a 22-Solar-Mass Binary Black Hole Coalescence
B. P. Abbott et al. (LIGO Scientific Collaboration and Virgo Collaboration)
Phys. Rev. Lett. 116, 241103 – Published 15 June 2016
Read Paper

Quantum Nondemolition Measurements of Harmonic Oscillators
Kip S. Thorne, Ronald W. P. Drever, Carlton M. Caves, Mark Zimmermann, and Vernon D. Sandberg
Phys. Rev. Lett. 40, 667 – Published 13 March 1978
Read Paper

Gravitational radiation
Rainer Weiss
Rev. Mod. Phys. 71, S187 – Published 1 March 1999
Read Paper

Additional information about gravitational waves is available in several articles in the APS publication Physics.

Information about the prizes the APS has bestowed on Thorne and Weiss is available below.

Contact: James Riordon, APS, riordon@aps.org, (301) 209-3238


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