Two Caltech Scientists Win Nobel Prize For Directly Observing 'Ripples In The Fabric Of Space And Time'

The 2017 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to a group of three scientists, two of whom are professors/researchers at Caltech.

As noted by the university, one half of the award goes to Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of Caltech, while the other half goes to Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This splitting up of the award isn’t just a formality; it also means that Weiss will get one half of the $1.1-million prize amount, while Barish and Thorne will share the other half.

The scientists were awarded the prize for their work on gravitational waves. These waves—which Caltech describes as "ripples in the fabric of space and time"— were predicted by a minor scientist named Albert Einstein about a century ago. The prediction came as part of his theory of general relativity, which says that gravity is caused by heavy objects bending space-time, according to USA Today. While Einstein believed in the waves' existence, he was convinced that we’d never be able to measure them, reports the L.A. Times.

Here’s where the Nobel laureates’ work comes in. Barish, Thorne, and Weiss were instrumental in the development of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), which, in 2015, gave us the first-ever direct observation of gravitational waves. What makes all this even crazier (for us laymen, at least) is that those waves that LIGO picked up were actually generated 1.3 billion years ago when two black holes crashed into one another.

Barish told the AP that he knew their work was a big deal, and had some inkling they might win the prize. So he’d actually set an alarm clock to tell him when the announcement would be made. Though the Nobel committee called him four minutes earlier (at 2:41 a.m. PDT) than his alarm indicated—even Caltech scientists can be off sometimes.

Thorne, in a statement, said that LIGO had resulted in the work of many people, not just the three scientists. ”The prize rightfully belongs to the hundreds of LIGO scientists and engineers who built and perfected our complex gravitational-wave interferometers, and the hundreds of LIGO and Virgo scientists who found the gravitational-wave signals in LIGO's noisy data and extracted the waves' information," said Thorne. (Fun tidbit: Thorne also served as science advisor on the Christopher Nolan movie Interstellar)

"The detection of gravitational waves is truly a triumph of modern large-scale experimental physics,” said Barish in the same statement. He added to the Times that the Nobel announcement was "a win for Einstein, and a very big one."

Certainly, work on LIGO has been a long labor of love. Construction of the two LIGO facilities—in Washington and Louisiana—started back in the mid 1990s. You can visit the LIGO website if you want to go into the nuts and bolts of the research.

And here's a video of the announcement of the prize, backed with a wonderfully complicated slideshow: