2017 Nobel Prize in physics awarded to LIGO researchers

MIT professor emeritus Rainer Weiss to receive half of the prize, calling it recognition for over 40 years of work

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Rainer Weiss, professor emeritus at MIT, chats animatedly during an Oct. 3 lunch hosted by the physics department to celebrate his Nobel win earlier that day. The entire MIT physics community was invited to the lunch, with more than a hundred students and faculty passing through the Marlar Lounge to congratulate and to take selfies with the laureate.

Rainer Weiss, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Kip Thorne and Barry Barish, both of the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for the first direct observation of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves, which were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.

In announcing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy called it “a discovery that shook the world.”

In February 2016, when an international collaboration of physicists and astronomers announced that they had recorded gravitational waves emanating from the collision of a pair of massive black holes a billion light years away, it mesmerized the world.

Weiss, 85, Thorne, 77, and Barish, 81, were the architects and leaders of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, the instrument that detected the gravitational waves, and a sister organization the LIGO Scientific Collaboration of more than a thousand scientists who analyzed the data.

Weiss will receive half of the prize of 9 million Swedish Kronor and Thorne and Barish will split the other half.

Weiss was born in Berlin in 1932 and came to New York by way of Czechoslovakia in 1939. As a high school student, he became an expert in building high-quality sound systems and entered MIT intending to major in electrical engineering. He later went to work in a physics lab and wound up with a Ph.D. from MIT.

Thorne was born and raised in Logan, Utah, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Caltech and then a Ph.D. from Princeton under the tutelage of John Archibald Wheeler, an evangelist for Einstein’s theory who coined the term black holes, and who initiated Thorne into their mysteries. “He blew my mind,” Thorne later said.

Barish was born in Omaha, Nebraska, was raised in Los Angeles and studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley, getting a doctorate there before joining Caltech. One of the mandarins of Big Science, he had led a team that designed a $1 billion detector for the giant Superconducting Supercollider.

Reached by telephone by the Nobel committee, Weiss said that he considered the award as recognition for the work of about a thousand people over “I hate to say it — 40 years.”

© 2017 New York Times News Service