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Caltech scientists awarded 2017 Nobel Prize in physics

Much buzz this morning regarding announcement of the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Among others, the Caltech Alumni Association emailed an article. See this PDF version for the full, extended story:

Kip Thorne (BS ’62) and Caltech Professor Barry C. Barish Win 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

Below are excerpts.

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three key players in the development and ultimate success of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). One half of the prize was awarded jointly to Caltech’s Barry C. Barish, the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus and Kip S. Thorne (BS ’62), the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus; and the other half was awarded to MIT’s Rainer Weiss, professor of physics, emeritus.

“I am delighted and honored to congratulate Kip and Barry, as well as Rai Weiss of MIT, on the award this morning of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics,” says Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “The first direct observation of gravitational waves by LIGO is an extraordinary demonstration of scientific vision and persistence. Through four decades of development of exquisitely sensitive instrumentation—pushing the capacity of our imaginations—we are now able to glimpse cosmic processes that were previously undetectable. It is truly the start of a new era in astrophysics.”

“The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO’s noisy data and extracted the waves’ information,” Thorne says. “It is unfortunate that, due to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the prize has to go to no more than three people, when our marvelous discovery is the work of more than a thousand.”

“I am humbled and honored to receive this award,” says Barish. “The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics. Over several decades, our teams at Caltech and MIT developed LIGO into the incredibly sensitive device that made the discovery. When the signal reached LIGO from a collision of two stellar black holes that occurred 1.3 billion years ago, the 1,000-scientist-strong LIGO Scientific Collaboration was able to both identify the candidate event within minutes and perform the detailed analysis that convincingly demonstrated that gravitational waves exist.”

Here’s the YouTube video of Caltech’s Press Conference.

10-15-2017 Note

LIGO is profiled in this 2017 BBC movie “The Amazing World of Gravity,” which I viewed on Amazon Prime. Jim Al-Khalili visits a LIGO facility in the latter part of the movie, as well as talks with Kip Thorne.

The Amazing World of Gravity 2017

From the award-winning British team that brought you Everything and Nothing and The Secret Life of Chaos comes a unique television event on the physics of gravity. This film features unexpected historical insights, cutting-edge science and exciting new experiments. From Einstein’s Relativity to quantum mechanics, host Jim Al-Khalili explores one of the most extraordinary phenomena in our universe. Runtime: 1 hour, 26 minutes.

Movie poster


[1] Another excellent Domain of Science YouTube video [visualization]: “How to See Supermassive Black Holes Collide : The LISA Mission” (published Oct 3, 2019)

Caption: The Lisa mission will be really cool, I look at all the reasons why. The European Space Agency Mission LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antennae) will launch in 2034 and will revolutionize the way we do astronomy. With a 2.5 million kilometre arm length it will be able to see kinds of gravitational waves that are impossible to see using Earth based detectors. Cool things it will see are collisions of super-massive black holes, orbiting white dwarf stars and measurements that will calibrate distance measures like sephid variable stars and supernovae, and it will be a new independent way of measuring the Hubble constant.

6 thoughts on “Caltech scientists awarded 2017 Nobel Prize in physics

  1. More media coverage today on the Nobel Prize for physics. Here’re two more articles:

    1. Nobel Prize Win Helps Launch New Era of Gravitational Astronomy

    “Just as electromagnetic astronomy has thrived for four centuries, bringing us ever more amazing insights into the universe, so [too] we can expect the same of gravitational astronomy over the coming four centuries,” Thorne said during a news conference at Caltech on Tuesday.

    Gravitational waves are generated by the acceleration of very massive objects. These space-time ripples travel at the speed of light, but they don’t get scattered or absorbed the way light does.

    2. Gravitational-Wave Scientists: Q&A with Nobel Winners Kip Thorne and Barry Barish I think you’ll also be considered a representative for large experiments — how to run them, how to fund them, how to keep them funded. What lessons have you taken from this whole experience about managing big science projects?

    Barish: I think there’s some really good ones. One is … international collaboration.

    LIGO has collaborators from all over the world, including Russia, [a country that] our government won’t talk to almost. [Those researchers] are an integral part of LIGO. And we work side by side without even thinking, “You’re from these different countries.” We get resources from the governments that are put together. Why can’t that same model be translated more to how countries behave? But do those simulations compare with what you can imagine? How important is your visual imagination to what you do?

    Thorne: Those simulations are much better than my visual imagination. We now understand from the simulations that when you have two spinning black holes collide, each one has attached to it a vortex of twisting space. When these holes collide, you have four vortices sticking out of the [newly formed] black hole. It doesn’t want to have four vortices, the vortices fight with each other and all hell can break loose. And insights into [this behavior] came from the simulations. But once you’ve seen it in the simulations, then your imagination can go forward. Because we were seeing things we’d never imagined before in the simulations, that became the starting point of subsequent imaginations.

  2. Caltech Magazine also has an article “Caltech Scientists Awarded 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics” on the prize.

    When those experiments [with large aluminum cylinders, or bars] proved unsuccessful, the focus of the field began shifting to a different type of detector called a gravitational-wave interferometer, invented independently by Weiss at MIT and, in rudimentary form, by several others. In this instrument, gravitational waves stretch and squeeze space by an infinitesimal amount while widely separated mirrors hanging by wires “ride” the oscillations, moving apart and together ever so slightly. This mirror motion is measured with laser light using a technique called interferometry.

    In the late 1960s, Weiss began laying conceptual foundations for these interferometers. In parallel, Thorne, along with his students and postdocs at Caltech, worked to improve the theory of gravitational waves, and estimated the details, strengths, and frequencies of the waves that would be produced by objects in our universe such as black holes, neutron stars, and supernovas.

    In 1972, Thorne, with his student Bill Press (MS ’71, PhD ’73), published the first of many articles that would appear over the next three decades, summarizing what was known about the gravitational-wave sources and formulating a vision for gravitational-wave astronomy.

  3. Is there another way to detect gravitational waves besides using massive interferometers like LIGO? Indeed, here’s an article about “atom interferometry” and research in a 100-meter vertical shaft at Fermilab, which hopes to detect gravitational waves in a broader frequency range and understand the arc of events better.

    MIT Technology Review > How frozen atoms could help us learn more from gravitational waves – We’ve seen ripples in spacetime only when the universe’s biggest events occur. Now there might be a way to spot them ahead of time by Neel V. Patel (Oct 21, 2019).

    The key to getting more out of these [gravitational wave] signals might come from a new experiment taking shape deep in a 100-meter (320-foot) vertical shaft at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. This is MAGIS-100, a project designed to see whether shooting frozen atoms with lasers can be used to observe ultra-sensitive signals that might be stretching through spacetime. If successful, it could help usher in a new era of “atom interferometry” that could reveal some of the secrets of gravitational waves, dark matter, quantum mechanics, and other heady topics.

    Stanford University physicist Jason Hogan, one of the leads for the project, likens the technology behind MAGIS-100 to a hybrid of an interferometer and an atomic clock. “These [strontium] atoms basically act like extremely good stopwatches that keep time on the propagation of light and look for fluctuations caused by other signals,” he says.

  4. Here’s another article by Paul Sutter which adds an interesting ripple to the discussion of gravitational waves: “The Universe Remembers Gravitational Waves — And We Can Find Them” (December 6, 2019).

    As gravitational waves ripple through space-time, they become a source of new gravitational waves, which become a source of new gravitational waves, which become a source of new gravitational waves, and so on. Each new generation of waves is weaker than the last, but the effect builds up into what scientists call a space-time “memory” — a permanent distortion of space-time left in the wake of a passing gravitational wave.

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