Three U.S.-based scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for detecting faint ripples flying through the universe — the gravitational waves predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein.
Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Barry Barish and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology won the 2017 prize for a combination of highly advanced theory and equipment design, Sweden’s Royal Academy of Sciences announced.
The scientists were key to the first observation of gravitational waves in September 2015. When the discovery was announced several months later, it was a sensation among not only scientists but also the general public.
“These gravitational waves will be powerful ways for the human race to explore the universe,” said Thorne, speaking by phone from California.
The prize is “a win for Einstein, and a very big one,” Barish said.
Gravitational waves are extremely faint ripples in the fabric of space and time, generated by some of the most violent events in the universe. The waves detected by the laureates came from the collision of two black holes about 1.3 billion light-years away. A light-year is about 5.88 trillion miles.
Ariel Goobar of the Royal Academy said the winners’ work meant “we can study processes which were completely impossible, out of reach to us in the past.”
“The best comparison is when Galileo discovered the telescope, which allowed us to see that Jupiter had moons. And all of a sudden, we discovered that the universe was much vaster than we used to think about,” Goobar said.
With the technology that the three developed, “we may even see entirely new objects that we haven’t even imagined yet,” said Patrick Sutton, an astronomer at Cardiff University in Wales.
The first of the 2017 prizes was announced Monday with the medicine prize being given to three Americans studying human body clocks. Prizes in chemistry, literature and peace also will be awarded this week.