Gravitational Waves Win 2017 Nobel Prize In Physics, The Ultimate Fusion Of Theory And Experiment (Synopsis)

“Well, I walked into Building 20 and looked in at the various little labs. There was a bunch of people doing something that looked to me to be sort of interesting, and since I knew all this electronics, I asked them, “Look, can you use a guy?” And I sold myself off as a technician for about two years.” -Rai Weiss, on the start of his physics career at MIT

It’s official at long last: the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three individuals most responsible for the development and eventual direct detection of gravitational waves. Congratulations to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish, whose respective contributions to the experimental setup of gravitational wave detectors, theoretical predictions about which astrophysical events produce which signals, and the design-and-building of the modern LIGO interferometers helped make it all possible.

Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne are your 2017 Nobel Laureates in physics. Image credit: © Nobel Media AB 2017.

The story of directly detecting gravitational waves is so much more, however, than the story of just these three individuals, or even than the story of their collaborators. Instead, it’s the ultimate culmination of a century of theoretical, experimental, and instrumentational work, dating back to Einstein himself. It’s a story that includes physics titans Howard Robertson, Richard Feynman, and Joseph Weber. It includes Russell Hulse and Joseph Taylor, who won a Nobel decades earlier for the indirect detection of gravitational waves. And it’s the story of over 1,000 men and women who contributed to LIGO and VIRGO, bringing us into the era of gravitational wave astronomy.

The LIGO Hanford Observatory for detecting gravitational waves in Washington State, USA, is one of three operating detectors working in concert today, along with its twin in Livingston, LA, and the VIRGO detector, now online and operational in Italy. Image credit: Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics may only go to three individuals, but it’s the ultimate fusion of theory and experiment. And yes, the best is yet to come!

25 thoughts on “Gravitational Waves Win 2017 Nobel Prize In Physics, The Ultimate Fusion Of Theory And Experiment (Synopsis)

  1. Upon thinking about external universe simulation I came to the question: were there any attempts to make a supercomputer simulation on planck scale. starting from the most tiny particles in our universe?

  2. I take it there has been independent confirmation of the orbiting black holes then? By other means other than laser interferometry? Otherwise, handing out prizes would be premature.

  3. This would tend to make me think that others are thinking skeptically along the same lines as I am on this:
    In science, confirmation is supposed to come first, vanity prizes and gushing accolades later.
    “In light of the above, our view should be clear: We believe that LIGO has not yet attained acceptable standards of data cleaning. Since we regard proof of suitable cleaning as a mandatory prerequisite for any meaningful comparison with specific astrophysical models of GW events, we continue to regard LIGO’s claims of GW discovery as interesting but premature. ”
    James Creswell, Sebastian von Hausegger, Andrew D. Jackson, Hao Liu, Pavel Naselsky
    August 21, 2017

  4. @Skytale,
    No. Because what are the rules (laws of physics) at Planck scale is pretty much unknown (or imprecise) for the purpose.

    For example, someone analyzing computer-made 2d/3d fluid simulations (assuming they are made using LBM algorithm) would have really hard time figuring out how they work in micro (cell/particle) scale (assuming if LBM algorithm was still unknown).

    Mathematically predicting an emergent property from the underlying set of rules, or the reverse (predicting underlying set of rules from the emergent property) are extremely hard problems (maybe w/o general solution).

  5. Maybe a better example would be trying to find out rules of Quantum Mechanics from rules of Chemistry, and vice versa.

  6. @CFT

    These Danish folks ramble on about leaving ‘templates’ out of the picture.

    If these templates wouldn’t be necessary for a discovery, than there would be no need to give Kip ‘Interstellar’ Thorne a prize as his work was about: “Thorne’s work has dealt with the prediction of gravitational wave strengths and their temporal signatures as observed on Earth. These “signatures” are of great relevance to LIGO”

    Anyway the promo-campaign has been mindblowing, and well timed from the start, with an extra release a just a week ago, nicely ahead of the Nobel prize. Very good PR team.

  7. @Elle H.C. #8,
    Hyped PR and awards have nothing to do with if the ‘discovery’ is valid, if they are premature it will reflect poorly on the competence of the entire scientific community.
    The parade can wait.
    If they merely wait until their claimed discovery has been actually confirmed, they would be in a far better place should there need to be a retraction as was the case with BICEP2. Remember that BICEP2 was pretty certain of their finding too.
    The articles I linked address the issue that they may be creating the very signal they think they are looking for. The template being used is not based on any previous observation, it was based on theoretical math. If you read the articles you would see they are finding problems with many of the assumptions made in these templates, that even when other parameters are changed significantly, they still get the same cookie cutter ‘signal’, and they still have strong suspicions the signal may in fact be nothing but processed noise.

  8. @CFT

    Who cares, the Nobel prize has an sich nothing to with science itself, it’s a publicity act / reward show. It’s great for those who win a prize and highlight progress made by science but that’s it. It also works in both ways, famous folks attatching their name to it gives credit to the reward show, and the Nobel name. It’s all about PR, and if Gravitational Waves are the latest hype, than the Nobel prize wants to grab a piece of the attention. It’s for the socialites of science. At the end of the day science itself is indifferent.

  9. Amusing to see two of the primary deniers of any science they don’t like (which is pretty much all of it) acting all butt-hurt over an award they try to dismiss.

    Congratulations to the researchers on well-deserved honors.

  10. I for one don’t have any problem with few scientists getting fame and money once in while, instead of tons of entertainment people for example. Which is better role models?

  11. @Elle #10,
    Ok. I’m fine with that. I have always kept science and PR strictly apart. One is for being honest with yourself in finding out how things work and interact, the other is about putting on a light show to raise funds and look good.
    The last ‘The Big Bang Theory’ episode actually made a few similar points about physics hype vs. the reality.

  12. @ dean #11,
    Seriously, the only ‘but hurt’ I have is because you keep attacking from behind, making crude anal commentary while acting like a douche. Please back off.

  13. @dean,

    Not hurt, just surprised that it went so quickly, others had to wait much longer. But then again Bob Dylan won last year one for literature … it’s elitist … plenty of other writers in the world who would have benefited much more from such a reward than a popstar.

  14. I for one would like to take out literature prize and put math and/ or Computer Science prize(s) instead 🙂

  15. Applause for CFT on #4 and 13.

    “In science, confirmation is supposed to come first, vanity prizes and gushing accolades later.”

    That was science back in the day when evidence was a requirement to make theory into science. (My signature is not appearing automatically. Let’s see if this posts.)

  16. I for one was never taught about Gravitational Waves when I went to U (1980). Likely, most of the public doesn’t know what they are either. I think that, along with the Prize announcement, it might be suitable to have a simplified explanation of just what these waves are and why these three scientists won this Prize.
    Seems like “gravity” is everywhere and caused by the curvature of space due to mass. So where are the G-waves so elusive?

  17. @Hank Goede #18: See, for example,,

    You asked “So [why] are the G-waves so elusive?” Because gravity is a very _weak_ force, much weaker than electromagnetism. I am confident this was presented to at uni in 1980: the gravitational attraction between two protons, for example, is about 10^-42 (that is, 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000001) the electromagnetic repulsion.

    Because these waves interact so weakly with matter, they are very hard to detect. The magnitude of their interaction with matter will cause relative changes in length of about 10^-21. Over the 4 km arms of LIGO, that’s 4*10^-18 m, or a few attometers. For comparison, the diameter of a hydrogen atom is 10^-10 m, and the diameter of a proton is 10^-15 m.

    • Thanks for a reply Mr. Kelsey. I appreciate that gravity is a much weaker force than the electromagnetic force, you say 10^-42 times weaker. But I also note that just the earth alone has about 1.79^+51 protons and neutrons and electrons in it, so I would naturally think the combined gravitational force of these would be much greater than their combined electromagnetic forces, which are largely neutralized anyway due to charge balance. I guess you are saying that G-waves from each sub-atomic particle do not add coherently, but rather are totally non-coherent, and so G-waves from a collective some of masses are no more detectable that those from just one particle.? Anyway, it’s a interesting topic.
      Could I ask one more question: what is the velocity of G-waves?

  18. Hank: I think that, along with the Prize announcement, it might be suitable to have a simplified explanation of just what these waves are and why these three scientists won this Prize.

    The Nobel organization publishes almost exactly what you’re asking for on their site. It’s under advanced information. Just click on the link to the pdf labeled ‘Scientific Background…’

    That took me about a minute to find. Might I suggest that in the future, before you complain about academics or scientists not providing the information you want, try spending a few minutes thoughtfully searching for it.

    • Eric,
      You’re right, of course. I admit I did not take the time to research the subject and likely should not have complained. I’m not at all complaining about academics or scientists – I was both one myself some time ago. I was just saying that a lay person would not necessarily know where to go to find understandable language on a subject as important as a Nobel Prize, and so the media might point to a place for more info. Certainly what I saw in the media, did not.
      Thank you for the link. I will certainly look at it.

  19. @Hank Goede #20: Yes, the reason you _notice_ gravitational forces, but not electromagnetic, is because matter is electrically neutral, and the number of (neutral) atoms in even a relatively small sample is large.

    Mass at rest does not emit gravitational waves; your comment about “coherent” or “incoherent” is irrelevant. A static gravitational field is proportional to the total mass. Gravitational waves are emitted by masses in motion, for which there is a net quadrupole moment (see the Wikipedia articles I pointed you at previously).

    Gravitational waves travel at the speed of light, as predicted by Poincare in 1905.

  20. @22: the media could indeed do a much better job of covering science. For things like this it seems to be one part cheapness/laziness (they just buy an AP article, or rehash one), and one part selfishness (i.e. not wanting to link to a site that could be considered a competitor for hits)

  21. Heartiest Congratulations!!! From Sameen Ahmed KHAN, College of Arts and Applied Sciences, Dhofar University, Salalah, Sultanate of OMAN.

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