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Unlocking the secrets of the universe; LIGO team awarded 2017 Nobel Prize in physics

Advanced optical interferometers provided instrumental key into the scientific potential of tomorrow's gravitational wave discoveries

The Optical Society

WASHINGTON -- Astrophysicists have long sought to detect ripples in space-time, called gravitational waves, since Albert Einstein's 1916 prediction of General Relativity. But only some of the most massive astrophysical events, such as mergers of black holes and neutron stars, can produce gravitational waves strong enough to be detected on earth. Today, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne, California Institute of Technology, USA and Rainer Weiss, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves." LIGO is the world's largest gravitational wave observatory and a cutting edge physics experiment. Comprised of two enormous laser interferometers located thousands of kilometers apart, LIGO exploits the physical properties of light and of space itself to detect and understand the origins of gravitational waves.

On 11 February 2016, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration announced that it had observed gravitational waves from two colliding black holes, 100 years to the month, after Einstein predicted General Relativity. Today, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration involves some 1,200 scientists and 100 research institutions around the world. With this many 'eyes' pointed to the sky, the research team can only continue to reach great heights in astrophysics.

"The LIGO operation and research began more than forty years ago and grew due to a sustained investment by the National Science Foundation in 1980. Barry, Kip and Rai were the visionaries of early LIGO and their scientific impact was honored today," said David H. Reitze, LIGO Executive Director and Fellow of The Optical Society. "With continued, long-term investment, Advanced LIGO and now Virgo in Italy, will continue to add to the early building blocks of their dedication to the field of gravitational wave science. We celebrate their success and the incredible team from the LIGO Scientific Collaboration."

Robert L. Byer, 1994 President of The Optical Society and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Applied Physics, Stanford University, California, USA, added, "The 100-year delay in confirming this prediction of Einstein's theory was not due to lack of interest; it is a reflection of the incredible measurement challenge that had to be overcome. Over time, advancements in optical interferometers have enabled the global team to reach the point where these gravitational waves will be detected as daily occurrences. I started with this fantastic team of scientists more than forty years ago and I know their research will continue to impact the way we view our universe for years to come."

Using advanced optical-based systems, the LIGO team was able to detect gravitational waves on Earth, which enabled them to determine the precise moments the black holes collided. A gravitational wave impinging on the earth alternately stretches and squeezes space itself, out of phase in two orthogonal directions. LIGO measures this distortion of space using Michelson interferometers, among the most venerated of all optical instruments. Unlike light, gravitational waves are not diminished by interstellar dust as they propagate through space. By detecting them, the research team is able to peer into the most energetic events of the universe and explore the cosmos in a completely new way.


Research papers published by Nobel Laureate Rainer Weiss:

Prototype Michelson interferometer with Fabry-Perot cavities; Shoemaker, David; Fritschel, Peter; Giaime, Joseph; Christensen, Nelson; Weiss, Rainer, 1991, Applied Optics 30(22) 3133-313.

Frequency match of the Nd:YAG laser at 1.064 μm with a line in CO2; Fritschel, Peter; Weiss, Rainer, 1992, Applied Optics 31(12) 1910-1912.

Demonstration of light recycling in a Michelson interferometer with Fabry-Perot cavities; Fritschel, Peter; Shoemaker, David; Weiss, Rainer, 1992, Applied Optics 31(10) 1412-1418.

Solid-state laser intensity stabilization at the 10-8 level; Rollins, Jameson; Ottaway, David; Zucker, Michael; Weiss, Rainer; Abbott, Richard, 2004, Optics Letters 29(16) 1876-1878.

About The Optical Society

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