Science

Gravitational waves: 'Discovery that shook the world' wins 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics has gone to three scientists for their contributions to the first detection of gravitational waves. It was to be expected, but you can never be sure with the Nobel committee.

Gravitationswellen (picture-alliance/dpa/CALTECH-JPL)

If this is "for the greatest benefit to mankind," as Alfred Nobel put it, this is going to be hard to explain. What is the benefit to mankind of gravitational waves, or the fact that scientists have detected them?

The detection of gravitational waves is a huge advance in physics and, indeed, for fundamental science. No doubt. It has proved yet another of Albert Einstein's predictions in his theory of general relativity.

And when scientists at the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) first said they had detected gravitational waves in 2015, it "shook the world," all right — just as Goran Hansson, permanent secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, described it on Tuesday in Stockholm.

But, still, the benefit to mankind? That's a tough one.

Someone to sacrifice

One half of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Rainer Weiss, and the other half jointly to Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne "for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves."

We knew LIGO was in the running, we knew there would be a Nobel Prize along these lines sooner or later, we just didn't know when.

"I see this as recognizing the work of about a thousand people," said Rainer Weiss, who spoke to the committee on a crackly line during the announcement. "It's a dedicated effort that's been going on for as long as 40 years."

Physik-Nobelpreisträger 2017 Rainer Weiss (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Harnik)

Nobel Prize winner Rainer "Rai" Weiss says the award recognizes the work of 1,000 people over four decades

LIGO is largely an American story. And you would be hard pushed to find anyone to admit they missed out, including among the Europeans have also played their part.

"No, I'm not disappointed. People will ask who did what, and we know what we did," says Karsten Danzmann, who heads the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics. "And it makes sense: 'Rai' Weiss for the beginnings of it all, Kip Thorne for theory, and Barry Barish for the team."

Danzmann predicted this year's win for LIGO when DW spoke to him in June 2016 about Europe's space-based detector, LISA. He has also been involved with LIGO. But he is, it seems, genuinely sanguine about missing out on the prize personally, or as part of a team. In fact, there's a sense he's glad it's not him - this way he can get on with his own science.

"People want heroes. And the impact of the Nobel Prize on society is much larger if you live with this short-coming," he says. "But you just have to find a victim and say, okay, that's the person. He has to sacrifice himself and bear all the burden of media hype to be there for a good cause." 

One other early contender was Scottish experimental physicist Ronald Drever, but Drever died in March 2017 and the Nobel Prize is seldom awarded posthumously.

"I think whoever you pick, it's always going to be a little contentious," says Oliver Jennrich, Fundamental Physics Mission Scientist at the European Space Agency. "If Ron Drever had still been alive, there would have been no doubt. He would have been the third person."

It begs the question who, then, would have missed out, Weiss, Barish or Thorne? But, no, let's park that, because these are the three. And in any case, there's that greater question about the "benefit to mankind" we still have to answer.

Fundamental benefit

Danzmann and Jennrich see this prize as an honor for the entire g-waves community. One of his colleagues, says Jennrich, is even updating her CV to highlight the fact that she is working in a "Nobel Prize winning" field.

And it's a good place to be.

Weiss says there's "a huge amount of things to find out in the universe that radiate gravitational waves." From learning about black holes to neutron stars and supernovae, it's going to be "fascinating," he says. 

But how do scientists communicate this stuff to the rest of us?

Kip Thorne Südkorea Pressekonferenz Seoul (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Heon-Kyun)

Nobel Prize winner Kip Thorne ... also known for his work on the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar

"The Nobel Prize is one of those rare occasions when people pay attention to science. It's a chance for us to get our message across," says Danzmann, "that something is happening here, and that Europe can be at the forefront, it just needs the political will. And don't leave everything to the Americans."

Political will usually costs money, though. And this field of research is a long term investment.

"We might have to wait a hundred years and only then look back and say that that was when we really started to understand more about the universe," says Jennrich. "This is the first time we are seeing — or measuring — things that we can't see with our natural senses. We can't look up to the night sky and say, 'oh, there go some gravitational waves.' The first four detections — no one knew they even existed."

All this knowledge of how the universe hangs together and evolves, it is hoped, will eventually trickle down to be of benefit to our daily lives. The detectors are getting better, and when the LISA detector comes on line, perhaps the world will listen once again. But it will be an international affair. 

Jennrich says it feels good to be able to say he knows at least one of this year's winners. He has worked with Kip Thorne on LISA.

Oh, really? So, what's it like to work with a Nobel Laureate like Thorne?

"They are very clever people, very quick on the uptake, and usually it's a joy to work with them. But we all have our characters, … what shall I say?" he says, trailing off delicately. "If you work in science at that level, you realize there are a lot of alpha personalities. So it's never easy, but it's always interesting."

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