Gravitational Waves wins 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics

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In an outstanding achievement recognising the work on Gravitational Waves, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three American physicists for their leading roles in the first detection of the waves.

The news is an astonishing outcome for ‘LIGO’ the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave collaboration, which involves more than 1000 researchers from 20 countries – including a dedicated team of Monash researchers.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences last night awarded the Nobel Prize with one half to Rainer Weiss and the other half jointly to Emeritus Professors Barry C Barrish and Kip S Thorne. The award recognises the trio’s work in the LIGO/Virgo Collaboration.

The first gravitational-wave discovery occurred in 2015, LIGO observed ripples in the fabric of spacetime generated by the collision of two black holes in the distant Universe.

“This is an outstanding and well deserved achievement for the Nobel Prize winners who have inspired two generations of physicists around the world to devote their lives to the quest for gravitational waves,” said the Monash Dean of the Faculty of Science, Professor Jordan Nash.

“The first detection of Gravitational Waves opened a new window to our understanding of space and astronomy,” he said.

“Monash has played a major role in LIGO for a number of years, including involvement in instrument design and data analysis.”

Gravitational Waves are emitted from some of the universe's most catastrophic events such as exploding stars and colliding black holes. Every source emits gravitational waves differently. For sources detectable by LIGO, these waves have the same frequencies as the sound waves we can hear.

Monash researcher and LIGO member Dr Eric Thrane, a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy, said by studying the precise ‘sound’ of a gravitational wave, it is possible to reconstruct the event that created it.

“This allows us to probe black holes and other extreme objects,” Dr Thrane said.

“It took many years of dedicated teamwork to realise the vision of LIGO,” he said.

Gravitational Waves offer a unique window on the universe, allowing us to probe black holes and other extreme objects.

That detection confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity.

Fellow LIGO Monash researcher Dr Paul Lasky said Australia was an early international partner in the LIGO consortium, and Australian scientists made important contributions to LIGO instrumentation, theoretical modelling and data analysis.

“The instrument was so complex that it had to be built in two stages,” Dr Lasky said.

“The first stage of LIGO operated through the 2000s, demonstrating the technology that would be needed to detect gravitational waves,” he said.

“But it wasn’t until the second stage, Advanced LIGO, was the equipment sensitive enough to detect the gravitational waves themselves.”

LIGO team member Professor Yuri Levin, completed his PhD under the supervision of Kip Thorne and was part of the Monash team when the first gravitational waves were detected in 2015. He is now a Professor of Physics at Columbia University, New York and adjunct Professor at Monash.

Members of the Monash University LIGO team are available for comment.