Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne, three key scientists responsible for the detection and discovery of gravitational waves, have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions.
Albert Einstein predicted the existence of such waves a century ago, but only in 2015 have humans been able to truly make significant progress. In that year, the first gravitational wave was detected, and in the following year it was all but confirmed, cementing a breakthrough in the field of astronomy and physics.
A Win For The Human Race
"It's a win for the human race as a whole," said Thorne. He and Barish come from the California Institute of Technology. Weiss hails from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "These gravitational waves will be powerful ways for the human race to explore the universe."
These waves, for the uninitiated, are extremely faint ripples that distort the fabric of space and time, but they're extremely difficult to detect because of their size. To offer some perspective: The gravitational waves spotted back in February were smaller than the width of an atom.
The first wave ever detected by the three scientists were the result of a collision between two black holes some 1.3 billion light-years away. But since that time, there have been more detections. What was extremely difficult to detect a hundred years ago has now become almost common.
The scientists weren't alone, though. Their discovery was greatly aided by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, or the LIGO. The collaboration, which spanned 40 years, involved more than 1,000 people all working to advance an experimental apparatus that could detect gravitational waves.
The LIGO observatories are extremely sophisticated and complex pieces of technology. They require maximum precision and stability to properly detect gravitational waves. In fact, they're so precise that even leaves falling from nearby trees would not cause them to shake.
"This is something completely new and different, opening up unseen worlds. A wealth of discoveries awaits those who succeed in capturing the waves and interpreting their message," said The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in a press release.
What Happens Next
It's an exciting time for gravitational wave astronomy. In the next few years, two more detectors will go online — KAGRA in Japan and another LIGO observatory in India. This means scientists will get tighter constraints on position in the future.
There's been four gravitational wave detections thus far, and the more frequently they occur, the better scientists get at locating them. But why, pray tell, is detection of gravitational waves so significant? Well, that's because they provide humans an entirely new way of seeing the universe, and perhaps by studying them, scientists can determine other secrets that the universe might be holding.
See you when the next gravitational wave is detected!