Ripples in space: U.S. trio wins physics Nobel for discovery of gravitational waves

Science | AAAS | 10/3/2017 | Staff
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In this time-exposure shot of one of LIGO’s interferometer arms in Livingston, Louisiana, the red lights symbolize gravitational waves.

Two years ago, physicists detected for the first time the infinitesimal ripples in space itself set off when two black holes whirled into each other. The observation of such gravitational waves fulfilled a centuryold prediction from Albert Einstein and opened up a whole new way to explore the heavens. Today, three leaders of the massive experiment that made the discovery received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

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Other physicists rate the discovery of gravitational waves among the most important ever in physics. “It's revolutionary,” says Abraham Loeb, a theorist at Harvard University. It's very rare that we open a completely new window on the universe.”

Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

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Weiss, however, says that he finds the prize somewhat embarrassing. “Receiving money for something that was a pleasure to begin with is a little outrageous,” he says. "The best way I can think of it is we're symbols for the much bigger group of people who made [LIGO] happen.” Weiss says he has arranged to donate the prize money to MIT to help support students.

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The entire notion of gravitational waves is mind-bending. In 1915, Albert Einstein explained in his general theory of relativity that gravity comes about when mass and energy warp spacetime, causing freely falling objects to follow curving trajectories. A year later he predicted that a twirling barbell-shaped arrangement of mass—such as two spiraling black holes—should radiate ripples in space that would zip through the universe at light-speed.

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Detecting the incredibly feeble waves is a challenge. Each...
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