Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. The three Americans are members of the LIGO-Virgo detector collaboration that discovered gravitational waves. The prize was awarded “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” the committee said in a news release.
“This year’s prize is about a discovery that shook the world,” said the Nobel committee representative Göran K. Hansson in Stockholm on Tuesday.
Albert Einstein predicted in his 1915 General Theory of Relativity that distortions in gravity would travel through space-time like a shock wave. It took nearly a century to confirm these distortions exist, a feat that required huge contraptions in two locations to detect an ultra tiny ripple in fabric of space.
One half of the prize went to Weiss, born in Berlin and now a U.S. citizen, who is a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The other half was split by Barish, a Nebraska native, and Thorne, who was born in Utah. Both work at the California Institute of Technology.
“When we first discovered them back in September 2015 many of us didn’t believe it,” said Weiss, calling in by phone to the Stockholm conference. It took months for the scientists to convince themselves that they had heard gravitational waves, he said.
Two black holes collided more than a billion light-years away, converting a mass equivalent to three suns into energy. As the violent belch passed by Earth, the twin LIGO detectors, in Livingston, La., and Hanford, Wash., caught the wave. The detectors registered the wave as a spike in frequency — a tone nicknamed the “cosmic chirp.”