Montana State University

MSU scientists' research contributes to Nobel Prize win

October 3, 2017 -- MSU News Service

Montana State University scientists are part of an international collaboration that contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery that today won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the collaboration’s pioneers. Shown is an artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPLMontana State University scientists are part of an international collaboration that contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery that today won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the collaborationâs pioneers. Shown is MSU professor and astrophysicist Neil Cornish, director of MSU's eXtreme Gravity Institute. MSU photo/composite image by Kelly Gorham.

Montana State University scientists are part of an international collaboration that contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery that today won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the collaboration’s pioneers. Shown is an artist's impression of gravitational waves generated by binary neutron stars. Credits: R. Hurt/Caltech-JPL

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BOZEMAN – Montana State University scientists are part of an international collaboration that contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, a discovery that today won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the collaboration’s pioneers.

In a live broadcast from Stockholm, Sweden, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that joining the list of Nobel laureates in physics are the three architects of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO: Rainer Weiss, MIT Professor Emeritus of Physics, Kip S. Thorne, Caltech Feynman Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics; and Barry Barish, Caltech Linde Professor of Physics.

The trio was named for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves,” Nils Martensson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, said at the announcement.

“We now witness the dawn of a new field: gravitational wave astronomy,” Martensson said. “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.”

The newest Nobelists, along with 1,200 scientists and engineers that included MSU’s LIGO group, contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves a century after Albert Einstein predicted their existence. The discovery was made Sept. 14, 2015, by twin LIGO detectors in Livingston, Louisiana and Hanford, Washington.

Weiss, in a phone call to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, recognized the contribution of the larger collaboration of scientists who made the discovery, and the Nobel Prize, possible.

“I view this more as a thing that recognizes the work of about 1,000 people, a really dedicated effort that’s been going on for – I hate to tell you – as long as 40 years,” Weiss said.

The discovery, announced Feb. 11, 2016, was the first time scientists were able to observe gravitational waves arriving at Earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe. The discovery confirmed a major prediction of Einstein's 1915 general theory of relativity and was called “the beginning of a new astronomy” by world-renowned physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking.

Neil Cornish, professor of physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science, has led MSU’s LIGO group since 2007, when it became a member institution of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. For the LIGO project, Cornish, together with his current and past graduate students Paul Baker, Tyson Littenberg, Margaret Millhouse, Laura Sampson and Joey Shapiro Key, developed a novel method for extracting gravitational wave signals directly from the LIGO data. This analysis helped confirm the nature of the signal and the consistency of the signal with the predictions of Einstein's theory of general relativity.

Results from the MSU team's analysis were displayed in the first figure of the resulting paper.

Since the first detection of gravitational waves, there have been three others, including the most recent detection made Aug. 14 and announced on Sept. 27. This fourth detection was the first made jointly by the LIGO detectors and the Virgo detector, located near Pisa, Italy.

Cornish, who is also director of the MSU eXtreme Gravity Institute, called the selection of LIGO’s founders a “wonderful and well-deserved” honor.

“I'm so happy that my colleagues Rai, Kip and Barry are being recognized for their vision and perseverance,” Cornish said. “Rai and Kip first conceived the idea to detect gravitational waves back in the ‘70s and Barry joined them at a critical juncture in the ‘90s to help turn the dream into a reality.”

Cornish said he is thrilled to be part of the project hailed worldwide as "the scientific discovery of the century.” The story of the discovery was featured on the front pages of leading newspapers and in top scientific journals and media including The New York Times, the Washington Post, Physical Review Letters, Science and Scientific American.

“It has been the highlight of my scientific career to be part of the first detection of gravitational waves, and I'm very proud that so many past and present students from the MSU Department of Physics contributed to this historic discovery,” Cornish said.

Yves Idzerda, head of MSU’s Department of Physics, said he believes that “great and exciting work lies ahead” for MSU’s LIGO and eXtreme Gravity Institute groups.

“This is just the beginning of this story,” Idzerda said. “I expect that Neil’s group and other members of MSU XGI will continue to make substantial contributions to the detection of gravitational waves made with this new window into the universe.”

In May 2016, the entire LIGO team a won a prestigious Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for its profound contribution to human knowledge. The Breakthrough Prize is an annual award that recognizes the world’s top scientists in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. While the annual Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is awarded through a nomination process, a Special Breakthrough Prize can be awarded by the selection committee at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement.

Hawking, who was on the selection committee, said “This discovery has huge significance: firstly, as evidence for general relativity and its predictions of black hole interactions, and secondly as the beginning of a new astronomy that will reveal the universe through a different medium.”

Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes, also lauded the achievement.

“The creative powers of a unique genius, many great scientists and the universe itself have come together to make a perfect science story.” Milner said.

Contact: Neil Cornish, ncornish@montana.edu, 406-579-3394

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