Nobel prize in Physics awarded for discovery of gravitational waves

The Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to the team of scientists behind the discovery of gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of spacetime first predicted by Albert Einstein over a century ago.

Two black holes merging into one

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration comprises over 1000 scientists from 17 countries, and includes researchers from ten UK universities including the University of Sheffield.

Half of the £825,000 prize sum will go to Rainer Weiss of Massachusettes Institute of Technology, and the other half will be shared by Kip Thorne and Barry C Barish, both from the California Institute of Technology.

The scientists have been honoured for their work on constructing the twin Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) which detected gravitational waves for the first time on 14 September, 2015.

Dr Ed Daw from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Physics and Astronomy is part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration that made the discovery. He has been researching gravitational waves with LIGO since 1998.

Reacting to Nobel Prize announcement Dr Daw said: “I’m pleased to see this achievement recognised on behalf of the thousands of scientists who work on LIGO, including the University of Sheffield group. I also know the recipients personally, in particular Weiss, who is a friend as well as a colleague.

“Those at LIGO who know Weiss will agree he is an unconventional fellow in the best sense of that description who has inspired a generation of experimental physicists, myself included.

“The first time I met Weiss properly was when he interviewed me for my first postdoc, at MIT. I was in my only smart suit, he walked in wearing a woolly hat, baggy sweater and jeans. I had to reassure him that this was the last time he’d see me dressed up that way. He looked relieved.”

Based on the signals, the collaboration of LIGO scientists estimate that the black holes, from which the gravitational waves were detected, were about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun, and collided around 1.3 billion years ago.

The gravitational waves recorded were about three times the mass of the sun which had been converted in a fraction of a second – with a peak power output about 50 times that of the whole visible universe.

Dr Daw added: “The future of gravitational wave physics is now intimately tied up with the future of astronomy. The field is set to expand rapidly, with more sensitive instruments needed to sense smaller signals and larger scale instruments needed to probe lower frequencies where many of the astronomical signals lie.

”But, for now, it’s time to enjoy the moment of a very well deserved Nobel prize for a great group of physicists. They have played a long game; the project started in 1972, and I didn’t even join until 1997.

“It’s a lesson to us all to keep both eyes on the science, to be prepared for a protracted struggle with Mother Nature, but ready in the end to step back and admire the edifice we have constructed, and go on to apply the tools we have created to achieving an ever expanding knowledge of our universe.”

Additional Information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 27,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2017 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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Amy Huxtable
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University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859