Einstein proof: Nobel winners find ripples in the universe
For decades astronomers tried to prove Albert Einstein right. They tried to do what Einstein thought was impossible. They tried detecting the faint ripples in the universe called gravitational waves. They failed repeatedly until two years ago. Then they finally spotted one. Then another. And another. And another.
Three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday. They launched a whole new way to observe the cosmos. Sweden's Royal Academy of Sciences cited the combination of highly advanced theory and ingenious equipment design. The awards went to Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It went to Barry Barish and Kip Thorne. They are with the California Institute of Technology.
"It's a win for the human race as a whole. These gravitational waves will be powerful ways for the human race to explore the universe." That's what Thorne told The Associated Press.
The trio were part of a team of more than 1,000 astronomers. They first observed gravitational waves in September 2015. The discovery was announced several months later. It was a sensation among scientists. It was also a sensation with the general public. These are waves that go through everything, including us. But they carry information on them that astronomers could not get otherwise.
"The best comparison is when Galileo discovered the telescope. This allowed us to see that Jupiter had moons. And all of a sudden, we discovered that the universe was much vaster than we used to think about." That's according to Ariel Goobar of the Swedish academy.
Weiss said he hopes that eventually gravitational waves will help science learn about "the very moment when the universe came out of nothingness."
Gravitational waves were first theorized a century ago by Einstein. But he didn't think technology would ever be able to detect the tiny wobbles. They are smaller than a piece of an atom.
The waves are like "a storm in the fabric of space-time. They are produced when two black holes collide," Thorne said. The first detection came from a crash 1.3 billion light-years away.
A light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles.
The prize is "a win for Einstein, and a very big one," Barish told the AP.
The waves are detected by a laser device. It is called an interferometer. It must be both exquisitely precise and extremely stable. This is because the a project costs $1.1 billion dollars. The first observation involved two of the devices about 1,900 miles apart. They were in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana. They came about 7 milliseconds apart. This is consistent with the speed of light.
A new detector in Italy helped in the discovery of the fourth wave.
With the technology that the three developed "we may even see entirely new objects that we haven't even imagined yet." That's according to Patrick Sutton. He's an astronomer at Cardiff University. That is in Wales.
Weiss is 85 and is German born. He initially spearheaded the research effort. It was awarded half of the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize amount. Thorne is 77 and is a theorist. Barish is 81 and is a project director. They will split the other half.
For decades, the scientists pushed for money to start the massive LIGO project. They got their first National Science Foundation grant in 1992. The first version of the detector went through six long runs looking for gravitational waves. But didn't find them because it wasn't technologically precise enough, Barish said.
And computer programs needed to solve Einstein's equations weren't quite right. "The quest was foundering," said Thorne. He peeled away from the detector work to form another collaboration to get better computing for detection.
Two decades after construction "we finally struck gold," Barish said.
Weiss also overcame failure. He flunked out of MIT and didn't have anything to do. He offered himself as an electronics technician to a lab at MIT and learned how to solder and deal with people. He returned to school. He got his bachelor's and doctorate at MIT. He ended up as a professor there.
"There was a person who thought I was OK. I wasn't a complete dope," Weiss said. "I got some confidence out of that."
In a moment of poetry aimed at making the distant and infinitesimal phenomenon understandable to non-experts, the academy announcement said gravitational waves "are always created when a mass accelerates, like when an ice-skater pirouettes or a pair of black holes rotate around each other."
Professor Alberto Vecchio is from the University of Birmingham's Institute of Gravitational Wave Astronomy. He said this discovery will produce results for decades to come.
"They have taken me, as well as hundreds of my colleagues, through such an intellectually rewarding and recently adrenaline-packed journey that we could not have even remotely imagined," he said. "The best part is that this is just the beginning of a new roller-coaster exploration of the universe."
For the past 25 years, the Nobel physics prize has been shared among multiple winners.
Last year's prize went to three British-born researchers who applied the mathematical discipline of topology to help understand the workings of exotic matter such as superconductors and superfluids.
The 2017 Nobel prizes kicked off Monday with the medicine prize. It was awarded to three Americans studying circadian rhythms. These are better known as body clocks. The winners were Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young.
The chemistry prize will be announced Wednesday. The Nobel literature prize on Thursday and the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize is not technically a Nobel It will be awarded on Monday.