The Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded Tuesday, and this year there is an overwhelming favorite. You can never know what the Nobel folks are going to do — insert the obligatory Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle here — but the discovery of gravitational waves looks like a slam-dunk. Lots of people will be surprised if the prize doesn’t go to Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss, who have already swept up a passel of physics prizes since the historic announcement of the discovery in February.
"Gravitational Waves! One of the most fundamental detections in all of physics," Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said by email when I asked for a physics prize prediction. And it's hard to imagine anyone would disagree with that.
There are other deserving scientists, of course. Just thinking out loud here, Vera Rubin could win for dark matter. William Borucki could win for masterminding NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. Or the prize could go to scientists we’ve never heard of (and who do work that we can’t possibly understand).
But the discovery of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) was the culmination of many decades of theoretical labor and then elaborate, exquisite and expensive engineering. And it was a slog. There was nothing easy about this. Entire careers were consumed in the quest. Friendships were frayed. No one knew if these gravitational waves could possibly be detected.
The hunt for gravitational waves is brilliantly told in Janna Levin’s book “Black Hole Blues and Other Songs From Outer Space," which is full of hard science and all the messy soap-opera drama that went into the LIGO project. (Levin, a professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University, appeared Sept. 24 here in Washington at the National Book Festival.)
The equations of General Relativity, which Albert Einstein produced in the fall of 1915, suggested that such waves should be part of the structure of the universe. They are ripples in the fabric of spacetime, propagating at the speed of light, generated by extraordinarily violent events, such as the collision of two black holes. But Einstein himself wobbled on whether these waves really exist. Yes, no, yes, he said.
For the better part of a century, visionary physicists tried to discover gravitational waves. Think Captain Ahab hunting the great white whale. The most compelling and melancholic figure in this tale was Joe Weber, a physicist at the University of Maryland. In 1969, he announced that he’d detected gravitational waves using massive metal cylinders known as resonant bars. But no one could replicate his findings. Weber stuck to his guns. He was debunked. He became an outcast.
The basic problem with gravitational waves was that, according to the theorists, they are extraordinarily faint. They are a hint of a whisper on the winds of the cosmos. To detect them you’d need something much more elaborate than what Weber concocted.
Rainer Weiss of MIT, and Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, were among those who pushed for a new kind of gravitational wave detector, a laser interferometer, built on a massive scale, and not once but twice, in far-flung locations. Redundancy was essential to double-checking a detection. After years of halting progress, rancor, power struggles, personality clashes, testy hearings in Congress, and all manner of scientific doubt and controversy, the National Science Foundation produced the hundreds of millions of dollars to build LIGO — two giant detectors, one in Louisiana and one in Washington state. In February, the leaders of LIGO announced in Washington that they’d detected the elusive waves, generated by the collision of two black holes more than a billion light-years from Earth.
Among the many ridiculous features of the Nobel Prize is the Rule of Three, which states that no more than three people can be laureated for a single discovery. LIGO doesn’t seem to have a major problem there, as Drever, Thorne and Weiss have long been known as the Troika. They’ve already received a load of major physics prizes since the February announcement. (Thorne and Weiss were on stage at the February announcement; Drever has suffered from dementia for many years and could not attend.)
Already, though, there is some controversy about the Rule of Three as it relates to LIGO. A story in the journal Science argues the case for Barry Barish. Barish was the second director of LIGO and the one who effectively rescued the project when it was on the verge of termination in the 1990s. Barish oversaw the upgrade [correction: he oversaw the proposal for the upgrade] in the detectors that made the discovery possible.
“Barry Barish is the most skilled manager of large-scale projects we’ve ever had in the world,” Thorne is quoted as saying in Levin's book.
To do something as big as LIGO required not only science at its best but also engineering at its most heroic. But the Nobel favors theorists, not experimentalists. We saw this several years ago with the Nobel for the Higgs boson: The two people who won the prize were theorists who worked out the ideas in 1964. And the Nobel arguably should have gone to six theorists, not two. (One of the un-laureated physicists would have won but for his crucial mistake of dying before the discovery; the Nobel Prize can go only to living scientists.)
No one who actively worked on the Large Hadron Collider or the two major experiments searching for the Higgs — that is, the people who actually found it — were honored with the Nobel. So it may be with LIGO. The paper announcing the gravitational wave discovery carried the names of about 800 authors. And the Nobel does not have a Rule of 800.