Three US scientists won the 2017 Nobel prize for physics
on Tuesday for opening up a new era of astronomy by detecting gravitational waves, ripples in space and time foreseen by Albert Einstein
a century ago.
The work of Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne crowned half a century of experimental efforts by scientists and engineers.
Measuring gravitational waves offers a new way to observe the cosmos, helping scientists explore the nature of mysterious objects including black holes and neutron stars. It may also provide insight into the universe's very earliest moments.
The first detection of the waves created a scientific sensation when it was announced early last year and the teams involved in the discovery had been widely seen as favourites for Tuesday's prize.
"We now witness the dawn of a new field: gravitational wave
astronomy," Nils Martensson, acting chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics, told reporters. "This will teach us about the most violent processes in the universe and it will lead to new insights into the nature of extreme gravity."
Weiss said the award of the 9 million Swedish crown ($1.1 million) prize was really a recognition of around 1,000 people working on wave detection.
Two US-based instruments working in unison, called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), detected the first waves caused by colliding black holes. A European sister facility, known as VIRGO based in Italy, has also detected waves more recently.
Those spotted so far have come from very distant black holes —extraordinarily dense objects whose existence was also predicted by Einstein —that smashed together to form a single, larger black hole. Weiss believes this is just the start.
"There are a huge amount of things ... in the universe that radiate gravitational waves. The black holes are the most obvious but there are many, many others," he said in a telephone call with the Nobel committee.
Other experts share that excitement and said LIGO and VIRGO offered new ways to explore the fundamental nature of the universe that have so far been impossible, even with the most sophisticated telescopes.