A Trio of AAAS Fellows Take Home 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

The work of Rainer Weiss, from left, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne led to one of science’s highest honors after years of work proved wrong Albert Einstein's doubts that gravitational waves were too faint to be measured. They detected the ripples of space time. | From left, M. Scott Brauer; Caltech; Caltech Alumni Association

Three American Association for the Advancement of Science fellows were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for work that led to the first detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in 2015, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced Oct. 3.

Rainer Weiss, a German-born American physicist, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, took a defining step when he authored a 1972 paper on the design of a laser-based interferometer to detect the collision of black holes in outer space that would take more than a billion years to reach Earth.

Joined by Kip S. Thorne, an American theoretical physicist, and Barry C. Barish, an American experimental physicist, both of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, the three later devoted “their enthusiasm and determination” to the pursuit and were “invaluable to the success of LIGO,” the Nobel committee said in statement announcing the award from Stockholm.

Favored by many in the scientific community as likely laureates, scientists’ first detection of ripples in the fabric of space time on September 14, 2015 was the realization of a prediction made by Albert Einstein in his General Theory of Relativity. Since then, the discovery has ushered in a new era in astrophysics.

The National Science Foundation provided funding for research and development work on LIGO at both MIT and Caltech, leading to the beginning of its construction in 1994.

“Gravitational waves spread at the speed of light, filling the universe,” the Nobel committee said. “They are always created when a mass accelerates, like when an ice skater pirouettes or a pair of black holes rotate around each other. Einstein was convinced it would never be possible to measure them.”.

The three laureates thought otherwise and over the years, using “a pair of gigantic laser interferometers to measure a change thousands of times smaller than an atomic nucleus, as the gravitational wave passed the Earth,” the LIGO project found success, the Nobel committee said. 

The discovery was first shared with the world during a press event in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 11, 2016, coinciding with the 2016 AAAS Annual Meeting– an announcement AAAS simulcast at its  Annual Meeting a few blocks away.

Weiss, who fled Nazi Germany with his family as a child, was made a AAAS fellow in 1997 and has been a member since 1968. Thorne was made a AAAS fellow in 1976 and has been a member of AAAS since 1966. Barish was named a AAAS fellow in 2003 and has been a AAAS member since 1995.

LIGO has since made two additional detections of gravitational waves and the discovery has led to the development and establishment of global collaborations on next generation underground, space- and land-based detectors across the globe. 

The announcement comes on the heels of the Nobel committee awarding two other AAAS members, one of whom is AAAS fellow, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Oct. 2 for uncovering the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm of living creatures.

“This prize celebrates how ingenuity and determination over decades led to a new window into the universe that has already produced several exciting results with more to come," said Jeremy Berg, editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals.