$3 million Breakthrough Prize goes to gravitational wave researchers

The three founders of LIGO will divide the $1 million, and the remaining $2 million will be equally divided among more than 1,000 researchers and engineers on the team.

Caltech/MIT/LIGO Laboratory/Reuters/File
A computer simulation shows how our sun and Earth warp space and time, or spacetime, represented here with a green grid. The scientists involved in the discovery of gravitational waves, or ripples in spacetime caused by the collision of black holes, have been awarded a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize for special achievement.

The team of international scientists who detected gravitational waves for the first time have another reason to celebrate.

They have won the $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize, barely two months after publishing their historic discovery of the waves first posited by Albert Einstein a century ago.

The Breakthrough Prizes for scientific achievements, created by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and several technology pioneers, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin, will be shared among the founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and several other scientists who contributed to the research.

The three founders of LIGO – Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever – dedicated their careers to proving the existence of gravitational waves. The three will split $1 million, and the remaining $2 million will be equally distributed among more than 1000 researchers and engineers on the LIGO team.

Sharing the credit – and the cash – is “much more modern and much more the way that physics gets done,” said Professor Weiss, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “You can’t credit just the three of us for this.”

The team published their groundbreaking results in February. Scientists have long suspected that gravitational waves existed, but the LIGO team was the first to prove it.

The waves were detected on September 14, after rippling through spacetime for some 1.3 billion years before reaching Earth. The scientists concluded that the waves had released when two black holes spiraled close together and ultimately collided. As the Monitor’s Lonnie Shekhtman reported:

The power of the brief collision was massive: 50 times greater than all of the power of all the stars in the universe put together. This caused gravitational ripples, like the water ripples formed when a pebble is dropped into a pond, to 'propagate towards Earth carrying the news of the collision,' as Kip Thorne, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, said today at a highly anticipated press briefing in Washington, D.C., where giddy scientists relayed their findings to a room packed with people and 90,000 others watching online.

“For us to spend basically a half-century since the three of us started working in this field, to have it actually be pulled off successfully in the manner we dreamed – it was really remarkable and wonderful,” said Dr. Thorne, who is retired from CalTech. “I’m forever grateful to the team that got it done.”

The findings will help astronomers in determining the number of black holes and the number of neutron stars out there, and hopefully provide insights into how galaxies form.

Professor Einstein first predicted gravitational waves in 1915, in his general theory of relativity, which explained gravity as distortions in both space and time caused by bodies of matter.

“There are a lot of basic things about Einstein’s theory of relativity that seemed like science fiction when I was a student,” said Edward Witten, a prominent physicist who heads the physics prize selection committee. “This is the first time we’ve seen the full force of Einstein’s theory of gravity at work.”

The winners will be honored at a December ceremony, during which the annual awards for physics, life sciences, and mathematics will also be announced.

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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